World-class memory athletes can rattle off a hundred unrelated words, recite long lists of fictional historical dates, and recall complicated sequences of playing cards. But these apparent geniuses weren't born with exceptional memory skills. They trained their minds to become capable of these stunts, using a mnemonic training technique called "the method of loci."
With this strategy, individuals create a conceptual "memory palace" in their minds based on a familiar geographical setting that has recognizable details. They then use this mental picture to strategically organize an image-based association of something they want to remember with a particular spot in the layout. ("Loci" is Latin for "places.")
Let's say you were asked to memorize and later recite this sequence of words: strawberry, bicycle, stoplight, chocolate, bracelet, newspaper. You might envision yourself taking a stroll from your front door through your house to the back porch, planting each object in a physical location along the way.
Maybe the doorknob of your front door is shaped as a strawberry, then there's a bicycle leaning against the wall in your mudroom, a stoplight at the start of the hallway, a box of chocolate on the kitchen table... and so on. As you retrace your steps, you can remember where each item was left.
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If you're envious of people with super-sized memory, new research suggests that anyone can improve their memorization skills with a training technique like the method of loci.
A study that was just published in the neuroscience journal Neuron compared 23 of the world's most successful memory athletes to 23 individuals whose memory capacities were typical, but who shared similarities in age, health status, and intelligence. Over the course of 40 days, the control group participated in daily 30-minute training intervals using the method of loci.
The results were striking. Individuals who had typical memory skills at the start and no previous memory training more than doubled their memory capacity during that timeframe, at first recalling 26 words from a list of 72 and later remembering 62.
Four months later, without continued training, recall performance remained high. Interestingly, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scans that were done before and after the memory training revealed that the practice had altered the brain functions of trainees, showing connectivity patterns in their gray matter similar to those of accomplished memory athletes.
"It was already known from previous studies that the method of loci can considerably increase memory performance," said Martin Dresler, assistant professor of cognitive neuroscience at Radboud University Nijmegen Medical Centre in the Netherlands and lead author of the study, noting that the loci method is used, without exception, by all world-class memory athletes.
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"In our study, we show that the world's most experienced users of this strategy differ from normal control subjects not in coarse differences in a single brain structure, but in distributed connectivity patterns between larger brain networks," he added. "More importantly, we could show that these connectivity patterns can be induced in normal subjects by training in the method of loci."
The hubs of connectivity that Dresler mentioned are diffused and widespread, though one noticeable path extended to the medial prefrontal cortex, which is known to be active when individuals relate new knowledge to pre-existing knowledge. There was also strengthened connectivity to the right dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex, which is related to efforts to learn strategically.
"Our brains and memory didn't evolve to learn abstract information like words and numbers, but concrete information needed to navigate the environment and find places associated with food," Dresler explained.
This is why the application of spatial and navigational memory to retain more abstract information works so well - and why there's potential for all of us to remember a whole lot more than we already do.
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