Just six weeks of training can turn average people into memory masters.
Boosting these prodigious mnemonic skills came with overhauls in brain activity, resulting in brains that behaved more like those of experts who win World Memory Championships competitions, scientists report March 8 in Neuron.
The findings are notable because they show just how remarkably adaptable the human brain is, says neuroscientist Craig Stark of the University of California, Irvine. “The brain is plastic,” he says. “Through use, it changes.”
It’s not yet clear how long the changes in the newly trained brains last, but the memory gains persisted for four months.
In an initial matchup, a group of 17 memory experts, people who place high in World Memory Championships, throttled a group of people with average memories. Twenty minutes after seeing a list of 72 words, the experts remembered an average of 70.8 words; the nonexperts caught, on average, only 39.9 words.
In subsequent matchups, some nonexperts got varying levels of help. Fifty-one novices were split into three groups. A third of these people spent six weeks learning the method of loci, a memorization strategy used by ancient Greek and Roman orators. To use the technique, a person must imagine an elaborate mental scene, such as a palace or a familiar walking path, and populate it with memorable items. New information can then be placed onto this scaffold, offering a way to quickly “see” long lists of items.
Other participants spent six weeks training to improve short-term memory, performing a tricky task that required people to simultaneously keep track of series of locations they see and numbers they hear. The rest of the participants had no training at all.
After the training, the people who learned the method of loci performed nearly as well as the memory experts. But the rest didn’t show such improvement. Study coauthor Martin Dresler, a neuroscientist at the Radboud University Medical Center in the Netherlands, knew that the method of loci works quite well; he wasn’t surprised to see those memory scores spike. To him, the more interesting changes happened in the trained people’s brains.
Before and after training, nonexperts underwent scans that pinpointed brain areas that were active at the same time, an indication that these brain areas work together closely. Dresler and colleagues looked at 2,485 connections in brain networks important for memory and visual and spatial thinking. Training in the method of loci seemed to reconfigure many of those connections, making some of the connections stronger and others weaker. The overall effect of training was to make brains “look like those of the world’s best memorizers,” Dresler says. The results suggest that large-scale changes across the brain, as opposed to changes in individual areas, drive the increased memory capacity.
These new memory skills were still obvious four months after training ended, particularly for the people whose brain behavior became more similar to that of the memory experts. The researchers didn’t scan participants’ brains four months out, so they don’t know whether the brain retains its reshaped connections. No such brain changes or big increases in memory skills were seen in the other groups.
Memorization techniques have been criticized as interesting tricks that have little use in real life. But “that’s not the case,” Dresler says. Boris Konrad, a coauthor of the study also at Radboud, is a memory master who trained in the method of loci. The technique “really helped him get much better grades” in physics and other complex studies, Dresler says.
Improvements in mnemonic memory, like other types of cognitive training, might not improve a broader range of thinking skills. The current study can’t answer bigger questions about whether brain training has more general benefits.