How to super-size your memory in 40 days

After the training, the people who learned the method of loci performed almost as well as the memory experts.

In a study in the journal Neuron, the researchers showed that after 40 days of daily 30-minute training sessions using a strategic memory improvement technique, individuals who had typical memory skills at the start and no previous memory training more than doubled their memory capacity. They could recall nearly as many words as the memory athletes could, and they achieved similar results four months after completing training.

Assistant Professor Dresler and his colleagues also studied the brains of their participants and found similar brain connectivity patterns to those seen in "memory athletes", like that of Nelson Dellis - a four-time U.S. memory champion who can memorise 339 digits in five minutes and the order of a shuffled deck of cards in 40.65 seconds.

The other lead authors of the study are assistant professor of neuroscience Martin Dresler, PhD; postdoctoral scholar Boris Konrad, PhD; and graduate student Nils Muller, all at the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behavior in the Netherlands.

Using structural MRIs, the neuroscientists measured differences in brain size, but were surprised to know that no such difference existed.

Memory athletes are made, not born.

During short-term memory training, an individual practices remembering sequences, a bit like playing the game Concentration. In fact, the researchers found that the changes seen in the brain scans were a reliable indicator of how well someone would perform on a test.

Next, the researchers took 51 subjects who had never previously engaged in memory training and divided them into an experimental group and two control groups. The members of the second group were told to practise holding information in their heads for short periods without being given a particular strategy to help them. Meanwhile, the loci group were taught a systematic way to remember lists.

Before training, individuals could recall on average between 26 and 30 words.

The findings revealed those who trained using loci showed significant improvement in recalling lists of words.

Those who trained short-term memory could recall 11 more words.

In this study, the strategy Dresler chose was memory of loci training. Those with no training recalled seven more words. They can then retrieve the information later on by making the same journey in their mind and seeing the objects connected to each landmark.

And even training using the method of loci may not improve your ability to function in everyday life, Roediger adds. To Dresler, these results suggested "there's not a sort of general hardware difference in memory champions that allows them to reach these memory levels but that something subtler is going on", which spurred the team to investigate further. Brain scans of this group also showed changes in brain connectivity, which researchers hypothesize could be the basis of increased memory.

To begin to understand how the connectivity patterns in the brains of memory athletes influence memory performance, Dresler and colleagues looked at the 25 connections that most differentiate memory athletes from others.

The other, the right dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex, is known to be involved in efforts to learn strategically.

"It makes sense that these connections would be affected", said Ass Prof Dresler.

The method of loci is a technique that has been used for more than 2,500 years.

  • Joanne Flowers