Want a Better Memory? Train Your Brain

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The world’s most successful memory athletes can memorize hundreds of words, numbers and other information within minutes. And as it turns out, so can you — with a little practice.

In a recent study published by scientists from the Netherlands, Germany and the University of Stanford, it was found that everyone is able to learn strategies to strengthen their memory. Martin Dresler, lead author of the study and neuroscientist at Radboud University in the Netherlands, said a strong memory is a product of training.

Credit: Memoacademy/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

“These really incredible memory feats…are not some form of inborn talent. It’s really just training,” Dresler said to CNN.

The study observed the brains of 23 memory athletes from the top 50 of the memory sports world ranking list. Scientists used MRI scans to compare the memory athletes’ brain function and anatomy to a control group of 51 participants who weren’t memory athletes.

The 51 individuals took part in memory training sessions over a six-week period. In each session, the participants took a memory test where they were required to memorize 72 words. They were then retested after 20 minutes and again after 24 hours.

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The participants returned after the six-week period for a post-training assessment that included new MRI scans, memorizing another 72 words and more retesting. They were invited back again after another four-month period for the same assessment.

The participants exhibited significantly improved memories in the second assessment and even persisted in the four-month follow-up, the authors wrote. Boris Konrad, a researcher with the study and memory athlete, said he was surprised by the study’s results.

“It surprised me that we did not find structural differences in the brain,” Konrad said.

The World Memory Championships host competitors every year. Credit: Stryifm/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

Konrad, ranked 24th worldwide by the World Memory Sports Council, had guessed that the brains of memory athletes would differ. Konrad said while the anatomy was no different, the memory athletes’ brains worked differently.

The memory athletes’ memory centers were communicating with the visual and spatial centers of the brain. One strategy the memory athletes use, known as memory palace, makes memories stick by taking advantage of visual learning and navigation. Konrad said only memory athletes use more brain regions than others, but it could be encouraging to others.

“It might be a motivating message for some: You don’t have to have a special brain in any way,” he said.

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The study supports a belief of neuroscientists that memory uses many different parts of the brain and that the brain is connected by a kind of network system. It also lends hope to those who fear neurological health issues, such as Alzheimer’s disease.

“Memory is one of the core components of human cognition. Memory is critical for learning new information and allows one to plan for the future,” the authors wrote. “These results demonstrate the role of mnemonic strategies in altering functional networks and improving memory performance, and they support the use of MRI brain connectivity measures as a powerful tool in the study of brain plasticity.”

Tori Linville

Tori Linville is a freelance writer and editor from Clarksville, Tennessee. When she isn’t writing or teaching, she’s faithfully watching her alma mater, the University of Alabama, dominate the football field.