More than 2000 years ago, the ancient Greek poet Simonides of Ceos developed a strategy for improving memory, known as building a "memory palace."
Today, his technique remains a favorite among those who compete at the World Memory Championships, and according to a recent study published in the journal Neuron, it can benefit just about anyone. In fact, just a few weeks of daily 30-minute training sessions can have a dramatic, lasting affect on your memory.
"Not only can you induce a behavioral change, the training also induces similar brain connectivity patterns as those seen in memory athletes," says author Martin Dresler, assistant professor of cognitive neuroscience at Radboud University Medical Center, in a statement.
The goal of a training session is to memorize a list of words. The strategy is to walk around a familiar place like your kitchen or bedroom and imagine placing vivid objects that represent the words in specific spots. Mnemonic hints help, and the more bizarre, the better. If you have to remember the word "sun," for example, you could imagine a little sun over the heater. To remember "football" you could mentally place Eagles quarterback Nick Foles by your shoe rack.
Later on, you retrieve the list of words by mentally retracing these steps. The result, over time practicing this technique, is a stronger memory overall.
"You really walk through a place and then later you visualize the location to place an object there. You're not just wandering around in your crazy mental palace," co-author Boris Konrad, a neuroscientist at the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich, told The Guardian. Konrad is a memory athlete himself, currently ranked 24th among those who compete at the World Memory Championships.
As the research shows, practicing the technique over time slowly builds connections in your brain that improve your memory, which in turn can affect nearly every aspect of your life, whether you're talking to a client and drawing on something you read to demonstrate expertise, or telling a detailed story to your friends over drinks.
For the study the researchers brought in 23 of the top 50 memory athletes in the world. They gave these experts 20 minutes to recall 72 random nouns, and they were typically able to recall 71 or 72 of the words.
An untrained control group of people close in age, by contrast, recalled 26 words on average. But after six weeks of 30-minute daily training sessions, they doubled that number, remembering 62 words from the list of 72. Perhaps more impressive, after four more months with no training, members of the group were still able to recall 48 of the 72 words on average, significantly better than what they had done originally. A lasting effect had stuck.
"Once you are familiar with these strategies and know how to apply them, you can keep your performance high without much further training," said Dresler.
When the researchers scanned the brains of the control group, they realize that after just six weeks of training they had developed connections that resembled the memory athletes'. They call this effect "activity-dependent rewiring."
They believe the technique is so effective because the brain is already good at remembering visual information. To place things you want to remember in a spatial context, you are incorporating those parts of the brain. You transform what you want to remember into something more accessible. And, with time and practice, your brain physically adapts to facilitate that process.
"It does not make your memory capacity bigger; you use a different form of memory that already has a large capacity," said Konrad.
"Not everyone can become a champion," he added. "But everyone using the technique can improve quite substantially from the level they're at."
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