How to supersize your memory

Is there a way to potentially hack the way we remember? (Photographer: GreenFlames09). Photo credit: GreenFlames09

by Emmaline Elizabeth Rice

Have you ever wondered why rote memorization just doesn’t cut it sometimes? Or why memories that are linked to visual cues seem to stand out better in your mind? For some memory champions, this is merely par of the course. Recently, a publication in the scientific journal Neuron has solidified several memory techniques, including one identified in Ancient Greece as the Method of loci, which has served those looking to ‘super size’ their memory for centuries.

The Method certainly comes in handy for world memory champions. Many of these champs claim they are not inherently better at memorization than anyone else– they’ve merely put the hours in learning how best to work with their brain’s natural inclination for memory encoding and processing. The Method accomplishes this by triggering increased memory retention via visualizing a familiar space– say, your childhood home or your first room in university– in which the memorizer ‘places’ what it is they are trying to memorize along a walkable route through the space. For instance, if I wished to memorize the order of a deck of cards in a way which would make it, well, memorable enough to recall quickly from my working memory, I could begin with card 1 and make my through the deck to card 52, mentally visualizing ‘walking’ through my room and ‘placing’ each card in a specific and sequential locale. Then, when it came time to recall the deck of cards (a real memory champion challenge!), I would enter the room in my mind and follow the same route around my room as I had done previously, ‘finding’ each card along the way and relaying it to the listener (or judge). This is the nitty gritty of it all.

In the study, memory athlete Boris Konrad and a team of other scientists specializing in memory gain conducted a study in which they monitored the performance of two groups on simple memorization tasks. Konrad maintains that his memory is no more exceptional than anyone else’s– he’s merely equipped himself with the skill set to perform as a top memory athlete. The Method of loci was not the only technique involved, but it featured prominently.

The conclusions drawn from this study– in which fMRI brain scans of memory athletes as well as non-athletes were compared, and one ‘everyday’ group of people, after being trained by the athletes, was shown to improve significantly on memory tasks when compared with their own pre-training results and an untrained control group– seemed to indicate several things. The techniques add marked improvement to the function of memory gain. Furthermore, the fMRI scans only highlighted ‘widespread, distributed, and subtle’ neurobiological differences in the memory athletes, indicating that these techniques may not improve the overall function of memory, but serve to improve recall exercises that are suited to memorizing long lists of information– perfect for the championships… or perhaps an exam? Our knowledge of the human mind is constantly growing, but it’s exciting to know that several tried and true techniques– ancient ones, even– are still applicable.

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