Yes, you can super-size your memory to bring it to the level of a memory champion, a new study has concluded.
Brain scans revealed that memory athletes’ brains do not have a unique anatomy but instead exhibit certain brain connectivity changes. People with ordinary memory skills can also be trained to approximate their abilities, scientists found.
No Difference In Brain Structure
"After training we see massively increased performance on memory tests. Not only can you induce a behavioral change, the training also induces similar brain connectivity patterns as those seen in memory athletes,” said lead researcher Martin Dresler of the Netherlands’ Radboud University Medical Center.
The key was strategic mnemonic training, or the use of memory devices that assist in recalling plenty of information, particularly in the form of lists.
The techniques included memory palace or loci, an ancient strategy where one makes an imaginary journey through a familiar place such as a building, and employing each location as a visual tool for information storage.
The team studied the brains of 23 memory champions, who can process massive amounts of information from faces to names. They scanned the brains using functional magnetic resonance imaging, which measures brain activity through tracking blood flow changes, and compared them with those of individuals of a similar age as well as IQs.
Using structural MRIs, the neuroscientists measured differences in brain size, but were surprised to know that no such difference existed. A gap was detected in connectivity patterns scattered across 2,500 brain connections, yet no single region stood out.
Dresler described the neurobiological differences between the memory athletes and control subjects as “quite widespread, distributed, and subtle.”
Brain-Training Control Subjects
Astounding differences appeared when the scientists trained people with ordinary memory skills. Some had the training of memory champions, others had memory training without mnemonic techniques, while the rest received no training.
After 40 consecutive days 30-minute sessions, people with typical memory skills at the beginning but were provided training for memory athletes went from recalling 26 words on average from a list of 72 to remembering 62. The high performance remained when they were revisited four months later.
And the group exhibited brain connectivity changes. Dresler explained that they developed brain patterns similar to those of champions, and this particular pattern seems to be the neurobiological grounding for superior memory performance.
Even world record holder and neuroscientist Boris Nikolai Konrad, who was among those scanned, was not born with an exceptional memory. He remembered nearly failing in school because of poor English vocabulary skills.
Neuroscientist and Cambridge professor Michael Anderson, who was not involved in the study, said the training methods have demonstrated great power as early as the time of ancient Greeks. But this new study not only confirmed that memorization prowess is trainable, but also identified the brain changes accompanying it.
The findings were discussed in the journal Neuron.
A separate analysis last year highlighted the benefits of brain training in lowering the risk of dementia among healthy individuals by 48 percent, which showed promise in creating new preventive measures.