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We often think of prodigious memory as an arcane skill – almost indistinguishable from magic to those of us who no longer remember more than a few key phone numbers. But the ability to recall an epic poem or the full sequence of a deck of cards may be less mysterious than it seems.
According to a study published March 8 in the journal Neuron, the brains of 17 of the world’s top 50 memory champions actually look fairly similar to the brains of people with no standout memory. There are some key differences, but the researchers behind the study found that when people with normal memory capabilities adopted the preferred strategies of the competitive memorizers, their brains started to take on the same unique activity and connectivity patterns.
The differences between the brains of memory champions and regular people (of comparable intelligence and ages, which is noteworthy since all started from a high-IQ baseline) are “distributed and subtle,” says Martin Dresler, a neuroscience professor and researcher at the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry and one of the authors of the study. Those distinguishing factors are seen in brain activity rather than the actual structure of the brain.
The researchers identified 71 regions and six networks in the brain that they thought could be involved in memory, and tracked activity between and within these areas in the brains of memory champions and people who’d never trained as “memory athletes.” They observed the participants both at rest and while engaged in a memorization task, they found the super-memorizers had similar patterns of brain activity to one another. That activity was distinct enough to set them apart, but wasn’t notable enough to imply some sort of superhuman capability.
“We would have expected to find some more obvious differences in brain anatomy and memory structure but we didn’t, the brains of these people look pretty much normal – like yours or mine” Dresler tells Business Insider. “We were quite surprised.”
Making a memory champion
In a first part of the study, the researchers took the 17 memory champions and a control group of untrained people and had them all try to recall a list of 72 words. The memory champions could recall about 71 words on average, while untrained people could only remember about 40. Before and during the process, they used fMRI to scan the brains of the memory champions and control group members to identify the neural activity that made the champions unique.
The researchers then took another group of 51 “normal” participants and had them try to recall a list of 72 words – all with the expected results for untrained people. The scientists split those participants into three groups: one that would receive no training, one that would receive short-term memory training, and one that would study the method the champions said worked for them.
That method is called the “loci” or memory palace technique.
“The general idea is that you just imagine a really well known environment, it could be your apartment, it could be one room or the way home from your office, some spatial environment,” Dresler says. Then you just associate what you are trying to remember with one landmark in each place on your routine.
This is a famed strategy, and there’s a lot of evidence showing that it can be learned and it works, Dresler says. Its success may be due to the fact that humans have evolved to remember maps and places – the parts of our brain that help us recall directions are active when using this technique for memory.
The memory palace technique was also taught in the Middle Ages, and was how how ancient orators memorized speeches that could last for hours.
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After six weeks of training for 30 minutes a day, the group with regular memory capabilities greatly improved their recall of long lists of words. In fact, they got almost as good at it as the memory champions (an average of 70 out of 72 words). Their mental activity also started to look like that of the memory champions in an fMRI brain scan. The more an individual’s brain activity resembled that of the memory champions, the better they did on the test.
Again, the differences were subtle – there was no visible structural transformation, though Dresler says he thinks they may be able to identify some structural changes with a bigger group. But these results help to show how memory works when different regions and networks in the brain talk to each other, and also demonstrate how certain brain activity is associated with memory improvement.
Four months after the six-week training, the groups were tested again. The trainees that had been taught the memory palace strategy kept their newfound ability to use the technique. But the other two groups never showed any significant improvement in memory.
“Once you are familiar with the method and can apply it, you don’t forget it that quickly,” says Dresler.
Based on this evidence, it seems memory champions are not necessarily born any different, but can instead be made.