There are good and bad ways to improve your memory. A bad way is to follow the advice of Ben Carson and blast your brain’s hippocampus with electrodes. A good, scientifically proven way is to carefully and strategically train your way to an incredible memory. In a new paper, Dutch scientists explain that this is possible because, when it comes to memory, the brain’s anatomy isn’t nearly as important as its connectivity — which, in turn, can be easily hacked.
Cognitive neuroscientist Martin Dresler of the Donders Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging wanted to know what was so different about the brains of people with great memories. In his study, his team scanned the brains of 23 “memory athletes” to determine the anatomy of their brains as well as the strength of the communication signals between their different brain regions. Then, they did the same to 23 people with normal memory skills and compared their data.
While there was no difference in the brain anatomy of the memory experts and the regular group, the experts had much stronger connectivity patterns in the brain’s medial prefrontal cortex, which activates when people link together new and old information, and the right dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex, which is associated with strategic learning.
Dressler wondered: Could brain connectivity be improved? To test this, he recruited 51 people, which he split into three groups: two went through short-term memory and strategic memory training, and the other didn’t train at all. For six weeks, the training groups went through a specific form of mnemonic training called “loci training” — a method of memory enhancement that focuses on arranging and connecting information relating to spatial relationships. For example, loci training could include envisioning a specific route and the items that you may see along the way.
The memories of the people who trained showed incredible improvements after 40 days: Participants went from being able to remember 26 words out of 72 — only 36 percent of words — to remembering 62 words, or 86 percent. Altogether, they more than doubled their abilities.
What’s more is that their brains had actually changed. When the researchers scanned the brains of the trained people, they found evidence that 25 of their connectivity patterns now resembled those of the memory athletes from the first part of the study.
“It makes sense that these connections would be affected,” Dressler said in a statement. “These are exactly the things we ask subjects to do when using method of loci for memorization.”
So, good news: You’re not stuck with the bad memory you have. With careful training, people can vastly improve their memory skills, which is a lot better than drilling a hole in your head. (If you want to train yourself, you can do so here.)