Saturday, March 18, 2017

An ancient memorization strategy might cause lasting changes to the brain

[The Verge] Weird as it might sound, there are competitive rememberers out there who can memorize a deck of cards in seconds or dozens of words in minutes. So, naturally, someone decided to study them. It turns out that practicing their techniques doesn't just improve your memory — it can also change how your brain works.
There’s been a long-standing debate about whether memory athletes are born with superior memories, or whether their abilities are due to their training regimens. These tend to include an ancient memorization strategy called the method of loci, which involves visualizing important pieces of information placed at key stops along a mental journey. This journey can be an imaginary walk through your house or a local park, or your drive to work. The important thing is that you can mentally move back through it to retrieve the pieces of information you stored. (The ancient Greeks are said to have used it to remember important texts.) 
Boris Nikolai Konrad, a memory coach and athlete who’s in the Guinness Book of World Records for memorizing 201 names and faces in just 15 minutes, chalks his superior memory abilities up to training with this and other mnemonic techniques. “It's a sport like any other,” Konrad told The Verge. Only, he adds, “you're not moving that much.” But practicing is key.
To find out what’s going on in top-level rememberers’ brains, Konrad teamed up with neuroscientist Martin Dresler at Radboud University in the Netherlands. They recruited 23 of the top 50 memory competitors in the world. All were between the ages of 20 and 36. Then, the scientists scanned the memory athletes’ brains while they were just relaxing, and also while they memorized a list of 72 words.
The team, and their co-investigators at Stanford University, found that the memory athletes’ brains don’t appear to be built any differently from yours or mine, according to results they published in the journal Neuron. “That was quite surprising, since these are really the best memorizers in the world,” Dresler says. “And still, they didn’t show a single memory structure, any single region or collection of regions that was anatomically strikingly different from normal control subjects.”
Even so, their brains don’t work the way yours or mine does. The athletes were able to recall at least 70 of the 72 words they studied — compared to an average of only 39 words for the non-athletes they were compared to. What’s more, while the professional rememberers’ brains were structurally similar to the control group, the memory athletes’ brain scans showed unique patterns of activity, where brain regions that are involved in memory and cognition were statistically more likely to fire together. Read More