Quirks and Quarks

Flexing memory muscles like the pros can build long term memories

A technique developed in Ancient Greece helps the world's top memory athletes remember scores of arbitrary information in a matter of minutes. But it can also help non-professionals boost their long-term memory skills.

The 'method of loci,' developed in Ancient Greece, helped one person to remember 65,536 digits of pi

In memory championships, competitors have to accurately memorize huge amounts of arbitrary information. But a new study shows their techniques can help boost long term memories outside of the championship ring. (pathdoc/Shutterstock)

New research shows that a technique used by top 'memory athletes' could help untrained people boost their long term memories.

Memory athletes compete to remember as much information as possible in a short period of time. To do this, many of them utilize a technique called 'the method of loci' which involves mentally placing items along a well-known path.

"We wanted to know whether this method actually helps to form longer lasting memories rather than just memories that are weak and fade away with time," lead researcher Isabella Wagner told Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald.

The research was published in the journal Science Advances.

Take a walk down a familiar path

The technique is well-known in the world of memory sports. It has been traced back to Ancient Greece, and was used by one person to remember 65,536 digits of pi.

Lead author Isabella Wagner, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Vienna. (Isabella Wagner)

"You basically start with a route or a pathway that you're very familiar with," said Wagner, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Vienna. "It can be really anything. So, for example, you could start with imagining the way through your apartment. You start at the entrance, you walk over to the kitchen, and into the bedroom."

Then, along that path, participants picture images associated with whatever they're trying to remember - such as, a cow in the hallway if you need to remember milk. Or, chickens in the bedroom if you need to remember eggs.

"You make associations that are as weird and novel and funny as possible because that's typically something that the brain remembers really well," said Wagner.

Brain scans show surprising results

To study this, the team worked with 17 of the world's top memory athletes, and 50 non-athletes. The group was asked to remember a list of 72 words. Some of the non-professional group were trained using the method of loci, some were trained using other techniques, and some were not trained at all. All participants had fMRI images taken of their brains.

At first, the non-athletes were able to remember an average of 20 words. But after 6 weeks, the group trained using loci were able to remember over 60 words, while the control groups had no improvement. The participants were also tested four months later, and the memory efficiency had endured. 

The memory athletes easily remembered the 72 words. "If we would have given them more material, they would have even higher performance," said Wagner.

fMRI scans of the memory athletes compared to the non-athletes showed that loci training helped the brain work more efficiently. (David Tadevosian/Shutterstock)

The fMRI scans showed that the group who underwent loci training and the memory athletes had similar brain activity patterns after just a short period of time, and the process seemed to make the brain more efficient at storing memories.

"The regions that are typically engaged in forming long term memories, such as the medial temporal lobe, those regions showed decreased brain activity after training, which was quite surprising to us because typically better performance is always associated with more increased brain activity. And this was exactly the opposite," said Wagner.

Produced and written by Amanda Buckiewicz