Far from being limited to a gifted few, the ability to perform astonishing feats of memory, such as remembering lists of several dozen words, can be learned, say researchers.
In a study published in the journal Neuron, the researchers showed that after 40 days of daily 30-minute training sessions using a strategic memory improvement technique, individuals who had typical memory skills at the start and no previous memory training more than doubled their memory capacity.
From recalling an average of 26 words from a list of 72, the participants were able to remember on an average 62 words, the findings showed.
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Brain scans before and after training showed that strategic memory training altered the brain functions of the trainees, making them more similar to those of memory champions.
"After training we see massively increased performance on memory tests," said study first author Martin Dresler, Assistant Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at Radboud University Medical Centre in Nijmegen, The Netherlands.
"Not only can you induce a behavioural change, the training also induces similar brain connectivity patterns as those seen in memory athletes," Dresler said.
To explore the effects of training on the brain, Dresler and his colleagues recruited 51 individuals with typical memory skills and no previous memory training.
They were split into three groups two training groups and one group that did not train. The researchers scanned participants' brains before and after training.
The two training methods were short-term memory training and strategic memory training.
During short-term memory training, an individual practices remembering sequences, a bit like playing the game Concentration.
Strategic memory training provides trainees with a systematic way to remember lists.
In this study, the strategy Dresler chose was memory of loci training, which is employed by most world champion memory athletes.
Using this strategy, items on a list are associated with a remembered place, and users navigate that remembered place as they recall the list.
Those who trained using method of loci showed substantial improvement in their ability to recall lists of words.
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Before training, individuals could recall on average between 26 and 30 words.
Afterwards, those with strategic memory training could recall 35 more words on average.
Those who trained short-term memory could recall 11 more words. Those with no training recalled seven more words.
A day later, those who had trained still showed improvements in recall.
Four months later, only those with strategic training continued to show substantial gains, still recalling over 22 more words than prior to training.
"Once you are familiar with these strategies and know how to apply them, you can keep your performance high without much further training," Dresler said.