Method of Loci: How to train your brain like a memory champion's - Radboud University Medical Centre in the Netherlands
Becoming a memory champion is easier than you think.
The techniques mnemonists use to memorise hundreds of words or digits in minutes can be learned by anyone, a study suggests. After just six weeks’ training, participants more than doubled their performance in a memory test, and scans showed their brains were functioning more like those of competitive memorisers.
Memory athletes compete to memorise huge strings of information, such as decks of cards or digits of pi. To investigate what enables them to do it, Martin Dresler at Radboud University Medical Centre in the Netherlands recruited 23 of the world’s top 50 memory athletes. He was helped by a postdoc, Boris Konrad, who has competed in memory championships himself.
All the athletes had their brains scanned to look for features that might mark them out from the general population. To Dresler’s surprise, there seemed to be nothing special about their brain structure: no particular areas or connections that looked larger or different. However, functional MRI scans revealed that the patterns of activity in brain areas related to memory and visuospatial processing looked different when the experts weren’t performing any particular tasks
Mental landmarks. The strategy almost all top memorisers rely on is the “method of loci”, which involves imagining a route that they know well, such as moving around their home or travelling to work, and associating the information to be learned with landmarks along that route. They can then retrieve the information later on by making the same journey in their mind and seeing the objects connected to each landmark.
“Without a single exception, all the memory athletes told us they weren’t born prodigies, but they learned about these memory strategies, and only with these strategies can they perform at a high level,” says Dresler.
Next, he recruited 51 volunteers who had never previously tried to improve their memories, to see whether they could now do so using the same methods as the mnemonists.
The volunteers were split into three groups. One was instructed to practise the method of loci for 30 minutes a day for six weeks. The members of the second group were told to practise holding information in their heads for short periods without being given a particular strategy to help them. The third group did no training.
Memory upgradeAt the start of the study, the volunteers could remember 26 to 30 words on average from a list of 72. After six weeks, those who trained using the method of loci could typically remember a further 35 words. The other groups showed far smaller improvements: 11 extra words for the uncoached memory group and nine for the group that did no training.
Brain scans also revealed that the brain activity of the method-of-loci volunteers became closer to that of the elite memorisers. And the more their brain activity resembled the mnemonists, the bigger their gain in performance.
When tested again four months later, the method-of-loci group still performed far better than the other groups.
“From this we learn that the most important method the world’s best memorisers use – and on which they base all their performance – can be learned by naive subjects,” says Dresler. “And by learning it, their brains are changed in the direction of those of the world’s best memorisers.”
Henry Roediger of Washington University in St Louis, Missouri, says the results are impressive. But he says they may undermine the case for many apps marketed as being able to improve memory. “Most commercial brain-training programs do not use method-of-loci training,” he says.
And even training using the method of loci may not improve your ability to function in everyday life, Roediger adds. “I have spoken to many memory competitors who can perform astounding feats and yet they say they can be quite forgetful in daily life, like the rest of us,” he says. “They are not generally using their techniques as they walk around the world any more than you or I are.”
Journal reference: Neuron, DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2017.02.003
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