Brain activity in memory champs

Do you have a great memory? Can you easily recall names or online passwords? Can you memorize poems and speeches? Or are you like many of us who struggle to keep those details front of mind?

Most of us know a few people in each camp and it’s easy to be awed by the super memorizers. We think they must have an innate ability built into their brain structure.

Though first instinct might lead us to think super memorizers have some innate ability built into their brain structure, a recent study suggests otherwise. This study, published in Neuron in March, compared the brains of 17 of the world’s top 50 memory champions against those of more average individuals and found that although brain differences did indeed exist, they were differences in activity rather than structure.

Researchers identified 71 regions and six networks in the brain thought to be involved in memory. Using fMRI they examined activity in these areas for both groups. Participants were observed at rest and while memorizing. Memory champs shared some common activity patterns, which set them apart but were not significant enough to imply extraordinary capability.

Interestingly, when subjects from the normal memory group were trained for six weeks on the memorizing techniques used by the super memorizers, their performance improved significantly and brain activity also changed to resemble the patterns of the memory champions.

The technique used for this study is called ‘loci’ or memory palace and is a famous technique used since the Middle Ages. When attempting to remember a long passage of text or list of words, one simply imagines a very familiar physical location and associates the text with areas within that location.

Memory palace memory technique works and can be taught – some say it could work because humans have evolved to remember maps and places as these are the brain areas active when using this technique.

These results help show memory works when different regions in the brain communicate with one another and sheds light on which regions of the brain are associated with memory improvement.

It may also be a comfort to learn that memory is something we can train. Like working out to gain strength or flexibility, we can train our brains to increase their activity and connections and this can lead to significant improvement in memory function. With some dedicated work and focus, we could all be on the road to becoming memory champions – or at least see some improvement at remembering all those passwords!


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