Memorizing Pi to one thousand digits or committing the entire Quran to memory might seem like feats reserved for ultra-nerds or the ultra devout. But a new study of an ancient memory trick called the Memory Palace shows that such feats of mega-retention are within the grasp of ordinary people, and that just trying to become better at memorizing can have lasting impacts on brain function.
According to Hannah Devlin at The Guardian, a group of neuroscientists analyzed 23 of of the top 50 competitors in the annual World Memory Championships. Giving them a random list of 72 nouns to study for 20 minutes, the memory marvels were able to recall an average of 71 out of the 72 words. A control group of average untrained people, however, were able to recall just 26 words out of the list.
When a group of participants spent 30 minutes per day for 40 days practicing the Memory Palace technique, however, the subjects were able to recall an average of 62 words from the lists. Even four months after their training, they still were able to recall an average of 48 words.
“One of the initial questions was whether memory athletes have very differently wired brains. Do they have an innate gift that just can’t be taught?” Nils Müller, a neuroscientist at Radboud University and a co-author of the study in the journal Neuron, tells Devlin.
It turns out that the answer is probably no. When the team looked at traditional MRI scans of the memory champions’ brains and the memory neophytes, there were no perceivable differences, reports Rae Ellen Bichell at NPR. But when they looked at functional MRI scans, which imaged the brains while they were recalling the word lists, they did find subtle differences between the two groups. As the volunteers went through the memory training, however, their fMRI scans changed and began to look more similar to the memory champs'.
“We showed that, indeed, the brain is somehow driven into the patterns you see in memory champions,” Martin Dresler, another co-author from Radboud University, tells Bichell. “Once you are familiar with these strategies and know how to apply them, you can keep your performance high without much further training,” he tells Devlin.
So what is the Memory Palace and how does it work? Legend has it that the technique, also called the Method of Loci, began with the Greek poet Simonides of Ceos. He was giving a recitation for a group of nobleman when he was called outside by some messengers from the gods (naturally). As soon as he stepped out, the banquet hall collapsed, crushing the noblemen into hamburger. Rescuers were unable to recognize some of the bodies, so Simonides had to think deeply, remembering their places at the table. He realized that associating a location and image with each victim helped him remember their place at the table. And thus was born a technique used by many people through history to remember long lists of information or memorize long poems and speeches.
In general, to use the Memory Palace, the memorizer mentally places information associated with vivid, bizarre or scandalous images in a familiar setting—like, say, their childhood home—allowing them to later "walk through" the location and conjure up their list. For instance, to remember a grocery list of low-fat cottage cheese, saltine crackers and cabbage, a memorizer might imagine a skinny stick figure drowning in a giant tub of cottage cheese in their bedroom. Moving into the hallway, they could place an anthromorphic saltine cracker sitting in their path munching pieces of itself, while a huge cabbage might replace the television in the den, with Grandpa trying to change the channel, beating it with a cane and screaming about Andy Griffith. Those are images that might be hard to quickly forget.
Devlin reports the technique tends to work better than simple rote memory because it harnesses something that the human brain does extraordinarily well—recalling images in certain locations—and hacks that skill in order to remember information, something that we’re not so adapted to.
Boris Konrad, a doctoral student in Dresler's lab, co-author of the study and a world-ranked memory champ himself, says that not everyone can master the memory techniques well enough to become a world champion (see the book Moonwalking With Einstein by Joshua Foer to learn more about that). “But everyone using the technique can improve quite substantially from the level they’re at,” he tells Devlin.