#FridayHack: A Memorization Technique Used By Elite Mental Athletes

A few weeks of practice can alter your brains connectivity.

In the USA Memory Championship, mental athletes are given 15 minutes to memorize 117 photos of different people with a first and second name written below each picture. They are then given the same photos, but without the names and in a different order, and have 20 minutes to recall as many names as possible.

You still can’t remember the names of all of your co-workers, and you started six months ago.

These people are gifted, you tell yourself. They are geniuses. They popped right out of the womb with an uncanny knack for remembering things.

But, according to a new study published in the journal Neuron, you’d be wrong,

It turns out that the brains of elite memorizers are exactly like ours. Memory champs are made out of training.

The research provided solid evidence that most people can successfully learn and apply the memorization strategies—inducing brain connectivity similar to that seen in memory champions and triggering large-scale brain changes in the process.

To compare the brains of memory champions to us normal folk, they rounded up 23 memory champions out of the top 50 in the world and did MRI scans of their brains. They then scanned the brains of 23 regular people who were matched in age, gender and IQ to the memory athletes. When they compared the brain scans, they found no notable differences.

Where they did observe a difference was in “functional MRI scans, which measure brain activity by looking at how much blood is going to specific portions of it; they did see a subtle difference in brain activity,” reported NPR. “When memory athletes were asked to recite a long list of memorized words, some portions of brain were activating in unison—making 25 connections that seemed particularly significant among different parts of the brain. The scientists didn’t see that sort of unified activity in the brains of the regular subjects.”

After proving that those with superhuman memories are essentially just like us, the researchers conducted a second experiment designed to see if memory training could alter patterns of brain connectivity, making them more closely resemble those observed in the memory champions.

What researchers found was that top memory athletes had a different pattern of brain connectivity than the control group, but participants who learned a common memorization technique over a period of weeks greatly improved their memory skills, and began to exhibit brain connection patterns resembling those of elite memorizers.

Yes, in just a matter of weeks you can potentially optimize brain connections and improve your memory.

The intense memory training took place for half an hour each day for a six-week period, using the centuries-old method of loci strategy that is still popular with memory champions. Essentially, they learned how to map new information, like numbers or names, onto familiar spatial locations, such as those in their homes.

After training, the experimental subjects improved significantly at memory tasks (whereas neither control group improved), yet did not exhibit any structural brain changes. However, their brain connection patterns during resting state and task-based fMRI scans more closely resembled those of memory champions, a change that correlated positively with memory improvements, reported Scientific American. 

“I think the interesting part is that not only can you boost memory in a similar way behaviorally in normal subjects compared to memory athletes, but on the brain level you see a reflection of that behavioral increase, and you drive the brains of naive subjects into the patterns of the best memorizers in the world,” said Martin Dresler, who led the study.

“This is showing that the act of going and learning something new is changing your brain, and changing the way you process things, which will change the way you actually see the world,” Craig Stark, a professor of neurobiology and behavior at U.C. Irvine, told Scientific American.

So How Exactly Does the Technique Work?

“I use my visual memory,” said Boris Nikolai Konrad, co-author of the study, who also happens to be a memory champion himself, holding the world record for memorizing faces and names (201 people in 15 minutes).

If Konrad is trying to remember a person called Miller, he would picture the person looking at a mill, maybe during a vacation in the Netherlands, he told NPR. For more abstract challenges, like memorizing the exact order of hundreds of numbers, he’ll build memory palaces. This works by recalling a building or place that is very familiar and charting a mental path through that location.

“It would start in my room,” he said. “The first location would be my bed, and the second one would be the shelf above my bed; then it’s my desk, the computer on it, the window, the mirror and so on.”

To memorize the order of a particular list of numbers, he would translate the numbers into images and then distribute them along the mental path through his house. For example, to memorize his phone number, which starts with “1202,” Konrad transformed pairs of numbers into images, using something called the Major System. The combination “1-2,” for example, brings to mind (for him) a dinosaur. “So I would then picture a dinosaur standing on my bed,” said Konrad. “It’s a weird image. That’s why it sticks. And then, 0-2 would be a sun. So, I would picture the sun illuminating the shelf over my bed.”

Start practicing the technique now and in a few weeks you might finally remember the combination to your gym lock (without having to write it on the back of your hand).

Unfortunately, experts said that intense memory training doesn’t cure everyday forgetfulness. So you’re on your own with remembering to turn off the iron before you go to work.

 

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