A memory technique invented by the ancient Greeks can make dramatic and long-lasting improvements to a person’s power of recall, according to research that suggests many of us have extensive untapped memory reserves.
After spending six weeks cultivating an internal “memory palace”, people more than doubled the number of words they could retain in a short time period and their performance remained impressive four months later. The technique, which involves conjuring up vivid images of objects in a familiar setting, is credited to the Greek poet Simonides of Ceos, and is a favoured method among so-called memory athletes.
The study also revealed that after just 40 days of training, people’s brain activity shifted to more closely resemble that seen in some of the world’s highest ranked memory champions, suggesting that memory training can alter the brain’s wiring in subtle but powerful ways.
Nils Müller, a neuroscientist at Radboud University and a co-author of Moonwalking with Einstein:, said:
“One of the initial questions was whether memory athletes have very differently wired brains. Do they have an innate gift that just can’t be taught?”
The answer, perhaps surprisingly, was no. Prodigious feats of memory such as recalling hundreds of binary digits or a Sherlock-like ability to put a name to a face are likely to be mostly down to hours of training and using the right mnemonic techniques, the scientists concluded.
A study published in Neuron tasked experimental subjects with practicing the ancient Greek mnemonic technique of “memory palaces” and then scanned their brains with functional magnetic resonance imaging, comparing the scans to scans from competitive “memory athletes” and also measuring their performance on memorization tasks.
Memory palaces are a well-understood technique that is simple to learn, but requires a lot of practice to perfect. In brief, you start with a path through building you know very well (say, your home) and you “place” mnemonic reminders along that path: for example, you might put the first item in the list over the keyhole to your front door, the second hanging from the coathook just inside it, the third on the stairway railing leading upstairs, the fourth on the bottom step, etc. These mnemonics are absurd, memorable juxtapositions, often drawing on a pre-memorized set of associations (you might memorize a different strange object for every number between 0-9, like “0 is a gasping fish” and “1 is a smashed potato” etc and then use those to make the objects in your palace more memorable).
Derren Brown develops the technique well in his lively 2008 book Tricks of the Mind and they play a major role in Hannibal Rising, Thomas Harris’s 2007 prequel to Silence of the Lambs.
The study seeks to find physical, functional neural correlates to memory training, and it does, though the small sample size — and even smaller sample of “memory athletes” (23 of them!) calls the enterprise into question. It seems logical that mindful mental practice, repeated intensively for many days, would cause functional reorganization that an fMRI could pick up, but is that the whole story? How much does that reorganization correlate to memory performance? Does it endure?
We investigated 23 memory athletes (aged 28 ± 8.6 years, nine women) of the top 50 of the memory sports world ranking list. We used MRI to assess both brain anatomy and function during task-free rest before engaging in memory tasks. All of these participants attribute their superior memory skills to deliberate training in mnemonic strategies. The memory athletes were compared with a control group closely matched for age, sex, intelligence, and handedness. Of the 23 athletes, 17 participated in a word learning task under fMRI conditions where they demonstrated their superior memory abilities compared to controls (70.8 ± 0.6 versus 39.9 ± 3.6 of 72 words correctly recalled 20 min after encoding; median, 72 versus 41; Wilcoxon signed-rank test, p References
Mnemonic Training Reshapes Brain Networks to Support Superior Memory
by Martin Dresler, William R. Shirer, Boris N. Konrad, Nils C.J. Müller, Isabella C. Wagner, Guillén Fernández, Michael Czisch and Michael D. Greicius, Neuron
Ancient technique can dramatically improve memory, research suggests
by Hannah Devlin, The Guardian