Secrets of Memory All-Stars: Brain reflects superior recollection strategy

Some people have flypaper memories. Bits and pieces of information stick in their minds, enabling them to remember a dizzying array of stuff.

These memory all-stars aren’t smarter than the rest of us. Nor do they possess brains equipped with beefed-up memory centers. According to a report in the January Nature Neuroscience, their advantage lies in a propensity to use a learning strategy that engages brain areas important for spatial memory.

This particular memory-boosting strategy, described almost 2,500 years ago by a Greek poet, requires visualizing a pathway along which items to be remembered are situated at different points. A person later recalls the items by mentally retracing the route.

Neuroscientist Eleanor A. Maguire of University College London and her colleagues studied 20 adults, half having exceptional memories and half having average memories.

The two groups scored comparably on tests of verbal intelligence and nonverbal reasoning. During memory trials, a functional magnetic resonance imaging scanner measured blood flow–a marker of neural activity–in their brains.

Each volunteer viewed six items presented briefly, one at a time, and tried to remember the order. Each sequence was presented five times. One test consisted of three-digit numbers, another displayed black-and-white photos of men’s faces, and a third showed snowflake patterns.

After seeing, say, the sequence of six faces shown five times, participants viewed pairs of the faces and indicated by pressing a key which of the two had appeared first.

Exceptional memorizers showed predictable superiority on this task. In 9 of 10 cases, they reported having relied on the route-visualization strategy to remember items in sequence. None of the average-memory volunteers said that they had used a special memory strategy.

Compared with the run-of-the-mill rememberers, exceptional memorizers displayed greater activity in three brain areas linked to spatial memory and navigation. Neural bustle in these spatial sites remained apparent in the scans after the researchers screened out the responses of regions that had been activated by visual processing alone.

Intriguingly, the critical spatial areas were no larger in exceptional memorizers than in average memorizers.

“These brain findings confirm what memory experts have long said about using this [spatial] strategy,” comments memory researcher Larry R. Squire of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in San Diego.


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Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.