In the hazy times of the pandemic, days may seem to blend in with each other. But if you want to keep your memory sharp and reliable, there are ways to do so. According to a new study, the ‘memory palace’ technique really works — and not just for memory athletes, but for regular people as well.
Ancient hacks, new evidence
The idea of a ‘memory palace’ sounds complex and weird, but it’s actually quite straightforward. The idea is to associate one memory with visualizations of familiar places to enhance your ability to recall that information. A common variation called the “memory palace” involves creating an imaginary location (a palace), and “storing” information in those rooms.
The technique (properly called the ‘loci technique’) was recently popularized by series such as Sherlock or The Mentalist, but it was actually developed much longer ago. The Roman statesman Cicero described it in one of his works more than two thousand years ago. In more modern times, it has been discussed by psychologists, with one seminal study noting that the hippocampus can be used as a sort of cognitive map.
But does it really work? For those who truly have an exceptional memory, it clearly does. Many memory contest champions advocate this technique to recall faces, digits, and lists of words. But does it work for regular people? A new study says so.
In the study, researchers led by Isabella Wagner, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Vienna, carried out two trials. The first one was conducted with 17 memory athletes and a control group of 16 people. The control group didn’t use the loci technique but had good memory, as gauged by initial IQ scores. Meanwhile, the second trial was based on 17 people who learned the loci technique over 20 hours, and two control groups.
In both cases, those who used the memory palace approach scored better than the control groups. For instance, before the training session, the control group of regular people performed better than the memory palace training group, recalling 30 words on average (compared to 25 for the training group). But after the control group received general memory training and the other group received memory palace training, things shifted. The former improved to 41.7 words, whereas the latter improved to a whopping 56 words — more than doubling their initial performance. Although these are small groups, the results strongly indicate that memory palace training can improve people’s memory.
Participants of all groups also had fMRI images taken of their brains. Remarkably, after these brief memory training sessions, normal participants’ brains started to look much like memory athletes, suggesting that it’s fairly easy to grasp the technique.
It’s still not entirely clear why this technique words but Wagner suspects that the memory palace could serve as a sort of solid scaffolding on which it’s easier to build memories, both short-term and long-term. Speaking to Inverse, she says she likes to imagine chickens running around her memory palace when she needs to buy eggs, and it works.
The scans also reveal that those who practice this technique show reduced activity in the left lateral prefrontal cortex, suggesting that the approach could help the brain use resources more efficiently when storing information. At the same time, they exhibited higher levels of connectivity between the hippocampus and the cortex, which hints at long-term memory formation.
“Behaviorally, memory training enhanced durable, longer-lasting memories,” the study authors note.
The results are consistent with a 2017 study which found that memory training can reshape brain networks to support memory formation. In that study, it also took a relatively short period (four months) to make participants’ brain connections resemble those of memory athletes.
While the study focused on word memorization, researchers say it can be used on pretty much any type of memory.
Remarkably, this ancient memory enhancement technique really seems to work. For those of us who sometimes struggle to recall things, it’s definitely worth looking into.
Andrei's background is in geophysics, and he's been fascinated by it ever since he was a child. Feeling that there is a gap between scientists and the general audience, he started ZME Science -- and the results are what you see today.