How to become a memory athlete

You’re undoubtedly already familiar with memory champions that are capable of easily memorizing tens, hundreds, or thousands of pieces of information (word, numbers, faces, etc.) A recent study published in Neuron shows that, from a cerebral point of view, they’re not really so different from the rest of us. And that with training we can also considerably increase our memorization abilities and even compete with these athletes!

In order to better understand the brain features of people with highly developed memorization skills, the research team led by Martin Dresler (of the Radboud University Medical Center in the Netherlands) decided to study the 23 top participants in the World Memory Championships, an annual competition. The athletes consisted of 9 women and 19 men, and averaged 28 years of age. The researchers used an MRI to study their brain anatomy while resting and while performing memorization tasks. The data collected was then compared to that of a control group. Each participant was asked to memorize 72 words and remember them 20 minutes later. The results obviously put the champions first: the group was able to remember 70.8 words on average compared to 39.9 for the control subjects.

Surprisingly, neither their brain anatomy nor their overall cognitive performances seem to explain the memorization prowess of the ‘athletes.’ However, the MRI did indicate that these participants have greater connectivity between several areas of the brain related to memory. The champions themselves attributed their skill to highly developed mnemonic devices, particularly the loci method (associating an idea to a familiar place that you mentally visualize).

Unlike the numerous behavioral studies on the efficacy of mnemonic strategies, few studies have investigated the underlying brain changes. As a result, the team of researchers decided to compare the brains of memory athletes with those of 51 participants (average age 24) who had taken part in a 6-week training. During this period, each participant underwent two fMRI sessions during which they performed a memory test (72 words to recall). Between the two sessions, participants took part in a training (30 minutes per day for 40 days) to improve their memorization abilities using the loci method. At the end of the training period, the participants were again asked to complete the task of recalling 72 new words.

The results were surprising. Indeed, the researchers noted a considerable increase in performance (an average of 62 words memorized compared to 26 before training). The subjects maintained this same level of performance 4 months after completion of the training. Moreover, the brain connections used during the memorization task became more similar to those observed in the champions.

While this study should be carried out on a larger sample, it provides additional proof that it’s possible to significantly improve memory through training exercises.
Source: Martin Dresler, William R. Shirer, Boris N. Konrad, Nils C.J. Müller, Isabella C. Wagner, Guillen Fernandez, Michael Czisch, Michael D. Greicius, “Mnemonic Training Reshapes Brain Networks to Support Superior Memory,” in Neuron 93, March 2017.

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