Every year, the world's best memorizers gather at the World Memory Championships to recite lengthy lists of random numbers, the order of multiple decks of playing cards, historic dates, and the names and faces of strangers. The most elite members of this group are granted the title of "Grand Master of Memory," and the very best of that group is named the world champion. (The current champion is a 25-year-old American medical student named Alex Mullen.)
According to a new study in the journal Neuron, the brains of these elite memory athletes aren't structurally any different than the rest of us. But brain scans reveal that by practicing memory skills the athletes form better neural connections across brain regions, and ordinary folks can learn the same skills—and make the same brain changes—in just a few weeks.
"The acquisition and training of mnemonic strategies provides you with a new cognitive tool or skill," says study author Martin Dresler, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at Radboud University in the Netherlands. "You can apply it in given situations, however it won't affect your general thinking too much in situations where you do not apply it."
The research team performed two studies using magnetic resonance imaging to find out what exactly happens inside the brains of these trained memory athletes. In the first part of the study, they performed a structural MRI scan, which measures brain tissue volume and density, on the brains of 23 memory athletes, all ranked in the top 50 worldwide, and compared the results to 23 control subjects. Next the scientists scanned the brains using a functional MRI, which measures blood flow to active brain regions in real time. During the functional MRI, participants were asked to view a list of 72 nouns and recognize those words both 20 minutes afterward and 24 hours later.
Here's an idea of just how sharp these memory athletes are: Out of those 72 words, the athletes correctly identified an average of 70.8 words, while the untrained managed just 39.9 words.
The structural MRI scans showed that everyone's brains in the study were basically built from the same parts. An analysis of the functional MRI results, however, revealed that while the memory athletes were recalling the lists of words—exactly what they had trained themselves to do in the competition—their brains showed greater activity across 2,500 different neural connections, many of which were in relatively distant regions. "If two brain regions behave similarly in time and show comparable blood flow increases or decreases at the same time points, we speak of functional connectivity," Dresler says. Among all those connections, just 25 strongly differentiated the memory athletes from the untrained brains.
Next, the scientists wanted to see what would happen if someone learned the techniques memory athletes use to compete in the World Memory Championships. So they recruited 51 people with no prior experience in mnemonic strategies to spend six weeks learning tricks like how to assign words a visual place in your mind, as if you're walking down a street and reading them off signs. After the training, they increased their score on the same 72-word memory task by an average of 36 more words. When the scientists had the same group come in again four months after their training, they were still able to score about two dozen words higher over their baseline.
The functional MRI scans also revealed that thanks to the mnemonic training, their brains started to show the same increase in brain network connections as the memory athletes. At the same time, those network connections were also apparent on scans conducted when the participants were just relaxing and not trying the memory game. That means the pathways you open up with memory training are present all the time, not only when you're trying to recall lists. "I think it is one of the most interesting parts of the study," Dresler says.
If you'd like to sharpen your memory skills—hey, it could be handy at the blackjack table—head to memocamp.com, which is where the study participants practiced their techniques. The initial registration is free, and you can practice for several levels before you're asked to pull out your credit card. Dresler suggests starting with lists of words, which are easier to visualize than numbers, and finding a partner to practice with.