Total Recall: Here’s How You Can Enhance Your Memory
The ability to perform astonishing feats of memory—such as remembering lists of several dozen words—can be learned, says a report in the journal Neuron.
After 40 days of daily 30-minute training sessions using a strategic memory improvement technique, people who had typical memory skills at the start of the study and no previous memory training more than doubled their memory capacity.
They were able to go from recalling an average of 26 words from a list of 72 to remembering 62.
Four months later, without continued training, recall performance remained high.
Brain scans before and after the trial showed that strategic memory training altered the brain functions of the trainees, making them more similar to those of world champion memory athletes.
“After training we see massively increased performance on memory tests,” says study author Martin Dresler, a cognitive neuroscientist in The Netherlands. “Not only can you induce a behavioural change, the training also induces similar brain connectivity patterns as those seen in memory athletes.”
Among the top 10 memory athletes in the world a few years ago was co-author Boris Konrad, a professional memory trainer who is also a post-doc in Dresler’s lab.
Konrad and other top competitors in the World Memory Championships can memorize about 500 digits or 100 words in five minutes.
Konrad, who had become a memory athlete to improve his academic performance, helped connect Dresler to other top memory athletes for this study.
Initially, Dresler expected that memory champions might have notable differences in brain anatomy, the same way one might expect a world champion body builder to have unusually large muscles. Using structural MRI, however, they didn’t see differences.
Rather, the differences they detected between memory athletes and non-athletes were in connectivity patterns spread across 2,500 different connections in the brain. A subset of 25 connections most strongly differentiated athletes from those with typical memory skills.
Konrad, who was among those scanned, wasn’t born with exceptional memory skills. Nor were the other athletes Dresler studied.
“They, without a single exception, trained for months and years to achieve these high levels of performance,” Dresler says.
The strategy used in this study to improve long-term memory was “loci” training: items on a list are associated with a remembered place, and users navigate that remembered place as they recall the list. (The method of loci training used in this study is available at memocamp.com).
Those who trained using this method showed substantial improvement in their ability to recall lists of words. Before training, individuals could recall on average between 26 and 30 words. Afterwards, those with strategic memory training could recall 35 more words on average.