“I still forget plenty of basic things, like where I left my keys,” said Mullen, a medical student at the University of Mississippi.
Memory athletes such as Mullen can remember hundreds or even thousands of random words, numbers and images — a feat that may seem unbelievable to onlookers. But according to a study published today
, anyone can train their brain using the same tricks as the world’s top competitors, reshaping their brain’s networks in the process.
For the study, researchers recruited 23 of the world’s top-ranked memory athletes and compared their brains with those of people who had never practiced memory techniques at all. Then, they put some of the newcomers through a memory training program and observed how their brains changed.
The more the rookies practiced the techniques, the more their brain scans started to resemble the memory athletes’ — and it took only six weeks.
“These really incredible memory feats … are not some form of inborn talent. It’s really just training,” said Martin Dresler, a neuroscientist at Radboud University in the Netherlands and the lead author of the study.
Mullen, a relative newcomer to the scene who was not involved in the study, was none too surprised. The top-ranked memory athlete said that, before he started training, “I felt like my memory wasn’t that great.
“You can do things that you probably don’t think you’re capable of,” he said.
Gray matter’s anatomy
Boris Nikolai Konrad
, a researcher in Dresler’s lab and a memory athlete himself, had expected to find an enlarged hippocampus — the brain’s memory center — in memory athletes. But instead, their brains, and even his own, looked no different from the beginners’.
“It surprised me that we did not find structural differences in the brain,” said Konrad, who is ranked 24th worldwide
by the World Memory Sports Council.
His hypothesis was based on studies of London taxi drivers, who must memorize thousands of streets and landmarks for a notoriously difficult test called “The Knowledge.” Their brains were previously found to have larger hippocampi
Although the brain structures of memory athletes were no different from the beginners’, Konrad said, there was something different about the way their brains worked: Their memory centers were communicating strongly with the visual and spatial centers.
Konrad said this is because of how memory athletes train: by picturing familiar places and filling them with imaginary objects, like a cow eating moss to represent the city of Moscow.
By imagining that cow in the doorway of your home, the research suggests, you can make memories stick by capitalizing on something that humans are naturally good at: visual learning and navigation. Many athletes know this method as the “memory palace.”
In using this method, Konrad said, memory athletes use a larger number of brain regions — a practice that changes only brain connectivity, not structure.
“It might be a motivating message for some: You don’t have to have a special brain in any way,” he said.