Imagine remembering all the names of a group of people you’ve met for the first time. Or all the items you need to buy at the supermarket — without referring to a list. Or making a speech from memory, without notes.
These feats are easy for world memory champions.
But the question that intrigued some scientists was whether the brains of these top memory athletes are wired differently from the rest of us — an innate gift they were born with — or whether it’s a skill anyone can learn.
So they set up an experiment to find out.
The ancient Greek lyric poet Simonides of Ceos is credited with inventing a memory system (mnemonic) that is used by title-winners today. It’s called the method of loci.
The learning technique came about, so the story goes, when Simonides briefly left a banquet to meet someone. While outside, the roof collapsed, killing many. Corpses were too mangled to be identified for burial, but the poet was able to recollect their sitting positions and was therefore able to put a name to the bodies.
The trick to bringing to mind large amounts of data is to dream up a vivid image that represents each piece of information, and then place it into a familiar location or journey in the mind. Later, by moving around the location or tracing the steps of the journey, the particulars can be easily recalled.
For the experiment, researchers from Stanford University, California, and the Max Planck Institute for Psychiatry in Germany enrolled 23 of the world’s best memory experts. The participants were given 72 random nouns to memorize and 20 minutes to do it. On average they could remember almost 71 of them.
The researchers also recruited 51 adults with no previous memory training. Their ages and IQs were similar to the memory experts who nailed 71 out of 72.
They were divided into three groups. One group was given mnemonic training for half an hour a day for six weeks; people in the second group were instructed to just hold the information in their heads without any strategy; the third had no training.
These volunteers were given the same task as the experts.
Memory More Than Doubles
At the beginning of the study, they could recollect 26 – 30 words. After 42 days, the third group could remember an extra nine words, the second, eleven more, but the group trained in the method of loci more than doubled their performance, recalling a further 35 words; almost matching the world’s best memory whizzes.
Four months later the trained group were tested again. They could still remember about 50 words. So they held on to some of the memory gains they’d made from their six weeks of drilling.
Scans showed that anatomically, the memory champions’ brain structure was no different.
But functional MRI scans, which measure brain activity, showed different connectivity patterns in networks important for memory, visual and spatial thinking. Scans also showed that the brains of the mnemonic-trained volunteers had shifted to closely resemble those of the experts.
Yes, You Can Improve Your Memory
Lead author of the study, Martin Dresler, said:
“In a sense they really develop brain patterns that remind us of those of memory athletes. This specific pattern in brain connectivity appears to be the neurobiological basis of these increased and superior memory performances.
“A good memory is something you could learn and you could train [for]. And if you use these strategic mnemonic training memory strategies, you can really considerably increase your memory, even if you have a very bad memory at the start.
“Once you are familiar with these strategies and know how to apply them, you can keep your performance high without much further training.”
The loci method is thought to be the most successful memory strategy because it uses a whole brain approach; both the logical left side, and the creative right side.
Whether it will give you a good day-to-day memory, improve a wider range of cognitive skills or will help to prevent dementia cannot be assessed from this study.
But what seems clear is that if you need to remember a list of information or a chunk of data, loci training is the method of choice.