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Stanford University School of Medicine

You, too, can become a memory ace — and it will change your brain

ace of spades catMemory athletes -- individuals with the remarkable ability to, say, memorize the order of entire decks of cards in mere seconds -- invariably have a trick up their sleeve. It's a trick you can learn. And as you do, your brain will rewire itself to more closely resemble those of the memory athletes.

"Training normal humans to be memory athletes bulks up the brain's memory networks," says Stanford brain-imaging expert Mike Greicius, MD, senior author of a fascinating study published in Neuron. (The study also involved scientists from the Donders Institute in the Netherlands.)

In an annual tournament called the World Memory Championships, contestants compete in timed events in which they must memorize torrents of unrelated words, blizzards of fictional historic dates, lengthy digital series, sequences of playing cards, etc. (To observe one of these memory athletes in action, view this video.)

Memory athletes are made, not born. They attribute their their phenomenal recall not to the luck of the genetic draw, but to their use of mnemonic (memory-aiding) techniques such as the "method of loci."

This technique is the origin of language sequences such as "in the first place," "in the second place" and so forth. Thousands of years old and used extensively by ancient Roman and Greek orators, it involves pairing each item to be memorized with a visual recollection of a specific landmark along a well-traveled route, such as a round-trip walk to a local store.

In the study, the researchers performed brain scans on 23 of the 50 top scorers in the World Memory Championships and compared results for each memory athlete with those from a control subject carefully matched for age, sex, handedness and IQ but lacking the memory athletes' mnemonic prowess. On analysis, the scans were different: Even at rest, while just letting their minds wander, the mnemonic wizards' brain-activity patterns diverged from those of regular folks.

Next, the investigators scanned several dozen ordinary people's brains and tested their memorization ability, then assigned the experimental subjects to three groups. Some underwent a six-week course of daily online-training sessions in the method of loci. Others received six weeks of training to improve a different facet of memory called working memory. The rest got no training at all.

The memorization skills of participants trained in the method of loci -- but no one else -- improved dramatically, almost matching memory athletes' performance on a subsequent retest. Tested again four months later, they achieved similar results.

Interestingly, their at-rest brain-activity patterns were now much more like the memory athletes' than before training.

One thing: The dazzling mnemonic power instilled by the method of loci doesn't necessarily transfer into perfection in the humdrum, quotidian arena. "If you were to ask one of them if their skill spills over into other aspects of their lives, they would say no," said Stanford medical student William Shirer, one of the study's lead co-authors, in a news release I wrote about the study. "They lose their car keys as frequently as you and I do."

Previously: The state of Alzheimer's research: A conversation with Stanford neurologist Michael Greicius, From phrenology to neuroimaging: New finding bolsters theory about how brain operates, Having a copy of ApoE gene variant doubles Alzheimer's risk for women but not for men and A one-minute mind-reading machine? Brain-scan results distinguish mental states
Photo by g4ll4is

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