The Ancient Mind Trick That Still Works—and It Can Supersize Your Memory

World-leading memory athletes aren't born that way—you can actually supersize your memory with the right training.

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Some of us have good memories, and some of us don’t. It’s just one of those things we can’t do anything about, right? Like being right- or left-handed, or having freckles. Actually, no. Even if you’re one of those people who can’t pick up a few things from the store without referring to a shopping list, you can vastly improve your memory.

A recent study, “Mnemonic Training Reshapes Brain Networks to Support Superior Memory,” published in the journal Neuron, tells us why this is the case—and how it can be done. The team from Radboud University Medical Center in Nijmegen, The Netherlands, led by assistant professor of cognitive neuroscience Martin Dresler, PhD, began the study by examining the brains of 23 of the world’s leading memory athletes and 23 controls (people similar in age, health status, and intelligence but with typical memory skills). They used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure differences in the strengths of communications between brain regions, and structural MRI to measure differences in sizes. No differences were established in the anatomy of the brain (i.e. the memory athletes didn’t have bigger brains), but differences were detected in the connectivity patterns spread across 2,500 different connections in the brain.

Every single one of the memory athletes attributed their exceptional success at memory championships to training in mnemonic strategies, in particular the method of loci. Ancient Roman and Greek orators knew how to improve memory; they used this visual imagery strategy.

The next part of the study involved a different set of subjects—51 individuals similarly matched to the memory athletes, but with typical memory skills and no previous memory training, who were split into three groups. Two groups trained, and one did not.

“We trained the naive subjects in the method of loci for six weeks, 30 minutes per day,” said Dr. Dresler. “After training, participants of loci training showed striking increases in their memory performance. More importantly, changes in brain connectivity induced by the training mirrored the patterns of brain connectivity that distinguished the most successful memory athletes from the controls.” Specifically, the participants with typical memory skills at the start and no previous memory training progressed from remembering an average of 26 words from a list of 72 to recalling 62. Four months later, their recall performance remained high.

Taking this into account, we wanted to know how to improve memory in real life. “The method of loci has been shown to improve memory also in educational or everyday settings—when studying large amounts of information, or just the grocery list,” said Dresler. “It is a tool though that has to be actually used to be effective—without application in a given learning situation, memory after training in this method will probably be not much better than before.”

If you want to know how to improve your memory, a memory training website like Memory League and Memocamp should be your first stop.

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