If you’ve ever watched someone memorize and recite back a string of numbers or a long list of words and thought, “I wish I could do that,” we’ve got good news: You totally can. A simple mnemonic device used by world-class memory athletes can be taught—and mastered—by “normal” people too, according to a new study.
The brain-training trick, known as “method of loci,” involves pairing each item to be memorized with a mental image of a landmark along a familiar route—like your walk to work or to a local store. Researchers say that making these associations, and traveling that route in your mind, can not only help you remember those items better; it can also strengthen memory-related pathways in your brain.
For their new study, scientists at Stanford University and Radboud University Medical Center in The Netherlands gave functional MRI scans to 17 memory athletes and 51 people with no special memorization skills. Then they pitted them against each other in test to memorize a list of 72 words. After 20 minutes of prep time, the memory athletes were able to recall 71 words on average, while the others averaged about 40. (One of the study authors is a World Memory Champion himself, who can memorize about 500 digits or 100 words in five minutes.)
The researchers then divided the non–memory athletes into three groups, assigning them to receive either six weeks of online training in the method of loci; six weeks of training to improve a different type of memory, called working memory; or no training at all.
When they were retested six weeks later, the group that received method of loci training had improved dramatically, recalling almost as many words as the memory athletes. Even four months after completing their training, they scored similar results.
Brain scans taken after the training also showed changes in connectivity patterns, which now resembled those of the memory athletes. In fact, the degree of improvement seen in the brain’s memory networks directly predicted how well a person performed on the recall test. No significant memory gains, or MRI changes, were noted among the other two groups.
The study, published Wednesday in Neuron, suggests that you don’t need natural ability to become a world-class memory champ—just plenty of practice. And it’s practice that anyone can do: The method of training used in the study is available at memocamp.com, a website that offers several training programs, including a free trial package. (Memocamp did not sponsor the study and the authors have no financial interest in it, but participants were provided free access to its programs.)
Unfortunately, says lead author Martin Dresler, PhD, this specific skill won’t necessarily translate into better memory in other areas of life. When they’re not paying attention and actively applying the mnemonic method, he says, “even memory champions do forget names or their keys.”
But this type of memory training is still good for more than just party tricks, says Dresler, an assistant professor of cognitive neuroscience at Radboud University; it can also help in educational settings—like studying for exams—as well.
And it’s unknown whether this type of training might have longer-term benefits, like helping to prevent cognitive decline. “I guess training in the method of loci wouldn't do much better or worse than other cognitive training regimes in this regard,” says Dresler. He does note, however, that older adults may be able to use mnemonic devices to compensate, at least somewhat, for age-related memory impairment.