The making of a memory champion, it turns out, is not so different from the making of any other great athlete.
To triumph in sport, athletes sculpt muscle and sinew and lash them together with head and heart to deliver optimum performance. To perform extraordinary feats of memorization, memory champions strengthen distinct groups of structures scattered throughout the brain. And then, they groove the connections that lash those groups together until the whole system works like a well-oiled machine.
In short, memory champions are not born that way. These champions can be made, and new research offers a first-ever glimpse of how they do it.
The modern era has turned the memorization of vast lists of things — words, digits, places or names — into a competition. Held annually since 1993, the World Memory Championships pit memorizers from across the globe against one another in contests. Competitions test the ability to commit to mind, under time pressure, long lists of words, digits, dates, names, faces and even abstract images.
But the skill of memorization is an art that dates back to Greek and Roman orators, who largely pioneered the training techniques used by memory champions today.
Using a mnemonic strategy now known as "method of loci," ancient memorizers conjured in their minds a "memory palace" — a well-known or much-loved place. To remember long lists, they first converted items to be recalled into distinctive visual representations. Then they walked through their memory palace, mentally "placing" those items — in order — into the familiar nooks and crannies of a beloved landscape.
To recall the memorized items, ancient and modern memory champions alike need only walk through their memory palace, observing in their mind's eye the items they earlier deposited along the path.
In a study published this week in the journal Neuron, a team of Dutch, German and American neuroscientists scanned the brains of 23 memory champions and the brains of 51 other participants who had never engaged in deliberate memory training.
The scans first recorded the structure and volume of participants' brains and their component parts.
Then, they recorded the dynamic patterns of activation that transpired while participants were essentially resting inside a magnetic resonance scanner, minds a-wandering. All participants were then asked to try to commit 72 words to memory, and were tested on their recall. The brain scanner captured the action as the study's memory champions practiced their methods.
All of this laid a baseline for what was to come.
The researchers then broke the 51 ordinary enrollees into three groups. One group of 17 got six weeks of intensive training (40 30-minute sessions) in the method of loci. A second group got memory training that focused on improving attention and short-term recall, and the third group got no training at all.
Six weeks after their first scan, the 51 participants were asked to memorize 72 new words, then to recall them 20 minutes, 24 hours and four months later.
In all the tests of recall, those who got the intensive mnemonic training performed far better — three, four and five times better — than those who got no training or less-intensive training. Turning to the brain scans, researchers saw that intensive memory training didn't change the structure or volume of anyone's brain. But it did change the way their brains behaved, both when working and resting.
The neuroscientists found that when their minds were free to wander, both memory champions and participants who got the intensive memory training showed patterns of brain activation that were similar to each other, and quite different from patterns seen in those who got no training.
The differences were clear when researchers looked at communications between three brain networks, which govern memory, visual processing and internal emotional states, respectively. When those with memory training were at rest inside the scanner, those brain networks kept up an unusually strong and active communication.
When these subjects were engaged in a memorization task, activity within each of those three separate brain networks dominated. Meanwhile, cross-talk among the networks virtually ceased.
At the start of the experiment, the brains of the 17 who got intensive memory training had behaved pretty much like those of the study's other new enrollees. By the end of the six weeks, their brains behaved much more like those of the 23 memory champions. That was the "training effect."
The authors of the new research hope to shed light on how memory fails, as it does, say, with age or in dementia. They show how memory training enhances connections within, between and among the brain's key "networks." Maybe changes or faults in those same connections could signal a slide into cognitive decline.