A study was done on people with the worlds greatest memory.  These are the superstars that compete in the annual World Memory Championships.

Every year the worlds best compete to discover who can rapidly learn and retain large amounts of information.

To give you an example of their recollective prowess, top athletes can quickly memorize a list of over 100 words.

Also impressive is that they can recall the list 15 minutes later.

You might be wondering how to improve memory skills.   The way to do anything great is to find out what the champions are doing and copy them. Would that even work?

The answer is yes!

What these super memory athletes are doing is using a mental training strategy that involves mnemonics.

The term “mnemonic” describes a method that a person can use to remember something, for example, a rhyme like “i before e except after c” or the children’s ABC song.

In a paper recently published in the journal Neuron, Martin Dresler and colleagues report the results of a study.

To be measured was brain network connectivity patterns in a group of 23 of the “world’s most successful memory athletes.”

They compared these brain patterns to those seen in memory novices matched for age, sex, and IQ.

Even though these weren't memory experts, some of the control participants were gifted students from academic foundations or members of Mensa.

During research it was strikingly obvious that the memory athletes were far superior at memorizing a list of words. On average, they correctly recalled 71 of 72 words after a 20-minute delay compared to an average of 40 words recalled by the control group. The investigators used functional connectivity neuroimaging to compare brain network patterns in memory athletes to those of non-athletes.  What was found were specific neural network connections that were different in the athletes.

The investigators then recruited university students and taught them a specific type of mnemonic strategy known as “the method of loci.” (Students with past experience in mnemonic strategies were excluded from the study.)

The research team tracked whether the participants’ memory abilities increased with training and whether such increases were correlated with changes in the same brain networks found in the super memory athletes. They wanted to find out if the brain will respond in the same way as the athletes by using the athletes strategy.  The group receiving mnemonic training was also compared to an active control group who received training in a working memory task and a control group who received no training at all. (Working memory is used for temporarily storing and manipulating information, for example, remembering why we entered a room.)

The “method of loci” involves learning how to link images of the items to be remembered to visual maps of familiar locations, for example, rooms in a house or landmarks along a route between home and work.

This technique takes advantage of navigational and spatial systems that are highly developed in humans.

If you'd like to learn about memory strategies check out 'Unlimited Memory: How to Use Advanced Learning Strategies to Learn Faster, Remember More and be More Productive' by Kevin Horsely.  He is one of only a few people in the world to have received the title of International Grandmaster of Memory. Horsely is also a World Memory Championship medalist, and a two-time World Record holder for The Everest of memory test.  In his book he shares his incredible strategy for remembering numbers (the same system he used to remember Pi to 10,000 digits and beat the world memory record by 14 minutes).  He also shares how to use a car as a method of loci strategy.

The method of loci training used in this study was rigorous and consisted of 40 half-hour sessions spread over six weeks.

The active control group received a similar amount of training in the working memory task.

Once the training was done, people who were taught the method of loci had more than doubled the number of words they could recall from a list of 72 words. This dramatic increase was significantly different from the two control groups and was still noticeable four months later.

When brain patterns were measured in the loci training group, the investigators found that the specific memory-related network differences between them and the memory athletes diminished.

Furthermore, the trainees’ brain networks grew to resemble the networks of the memory athletes, the better their memory performance became.

The bottom line of this study is that successful memory athletes utilize the same brain network connectivity that any of us may be able to develop with training. Thus, these athletes are very good at utilizing network systems that exist in all of us. They seem to have built up their memory “muscles” with consistent, long-term practice.

With practice, it may be possible to become more like these memory rockstars than we would have thought possible. Based on studies outlined by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool in their book “Peak,” it appears that many humans can become highly proficient in other cognitive(and athletic) tasks with the right coaching and high levels of dedicated, effortful practice.

References

Dresler, M., Shirer, W.R., Konrad, B.N., Muller, N.C.J., Wagner, I.C., et al. (2017).
Mnemonic training reshapes brain networks to support superior memory. Neuron. 93:1227-1235.

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