Their study, published in March in Neuron, examines the memorization techniques of 23 “memory athletes,” each of whom had scored in the top 50 in the World Memory Championships. Many of the memory athletes attributed their prodigious memorization skills to a mnemonic system called the “method of loci,” in which the athlete pairs each item to be memorized with a visual recollection of a landmark along a familiar route, such as a walk to the grocery store.
In baseline testing, memory athletes who were asked to memorize a list of 72 words could correctly recall an average of nearly 71 after 20 minutes. Non-athletes recalled about 40, on average.
The researchers then divided non-athletes into three groups. One group received six weeks of training in the method of loci; a second was trained in a technique to improve working memory, or the ability to briefly juggle several pieces of data in your head; and the third received no training. The group trained in the method of loci — and only that group — became nearly as skilled in recalling words as the memory athletes. Four months later, they were still able to show off their memorization prowess with a new list of words. Using fMRI, the researchers could see that their brains had changed: While they were at rest, the patterns of activity in regions implicated in memory more closely resembled those of memory athletes than they had before the training.
“Training normal humans to be memory athletes bulks up the brain’s memory networks,” says the study’s senior author, Michael Greicius, MD, associate professor of neurology and neurological sciences.
But even memory athletes have been known to forget something important from time to time. “If you were to ask one of them if their skill spills over into other aspects of their lives, they would say no,” says Stanford medical student William Shirer, one of the study’s co-lead authors. “They lose their car keys as frequently as you and I do.”