Cognitive neuroscientists have scanned the brains of 23 “world memory champions” in an attempt to uncover the wiring behind their incredible memory feats. Using these findings, they have managed to enhance the gooey-computer (ie. the brain) of individuals with typical memory abilities within 40 days.
Researchers from Radboud University in the Netherlands started off by looking at the brains of people with exceptional memory using structural MRI scans. To their surprise, the scans showed that the physical structure of the brain was no beefier. Instead, they noticed vast differences in the connectivity patterns of the brain. In particular, there was a subset of 25 connections that appeared to be strongly differentiated in these memory champions.
The memory athletes all said they have mnemonic training strategies to sharpen their memory skills. This got the researchers thinking: Could any mind through training have these extra-sharp connectivity patterns and therefore obtain “superhuman” memory skills?
They gathered 51 individuals with typical memory skills and ran them through a program of “loci training". This technique was first put forward by the ancient Greeks and Romans, with loci being Latin for "places”. The basic premise is to visualize a physical space, perhaps a street or a park, and remember the place of certain words, items, or concepts as you “walk” through the space in your imagination.
You can try out the method of loci training used in the study for yourself on MemoCamp.com.
The training required 30 minutes per day for 40 days. Before the training, individuals could recall an average of 26 to 30 words. Afterwards, they recalled an average of 65 words.
They then performed a follow-up MRI scan to see if those 25 connections had changed in any way. The most poignant of findings was a vast increase in connectivity between two brain regions: the medial prefrontal cortex and the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. These regions are associated with relating new knowledge to pre-existing knowledge and strategic learning, respectively.
"It makes sense that these connections would be affected," author Martin Dresler, assistant professor of cognitive neuroscience, said in a statement. "These are exactly the things we ask subjects to do when using method of loci for memorization."