Researchers determined that the “memory palace” technique can help the brain have a better memory through constant training over the course of several days.
The study suggests that there is not much data about how the brain trains memory, which led researchers to compare the performance of regular subjects against memory athletes.
They trained control patients over the course of six weeks to see if they improved their performance.
The results showed that mnemonic training drives distributed changes on brain structure, altering how it organizes itself internally, making memory-based tasks easier to accomplish.
Associating objects to a good spatial order
Researchers explain that memory is vital for human cognition, as it allows us to learn new information and to plan tasks ahead of our time. They even suggest that the sense of identity is readily based on one remembering past events and sensations, quoting Alzheimer’s disease as the most influential and pervasive illness that results in memory loss.
Apparently, the brain makes use of the structure of its networks when it comes to memory-based tasks. Memory also seems to be correlated with the medial temporal lobe and others; part of this was discovered while learning on how to deal with Alzheimer’s disease and how it progresses to other regions of the brain.
In contrast to what is known about memory loss, researchers decided to focus on memory gain, by examining the networks that support memory. To achieve this, they recruited participants from the World Memory Championships, famously known for being able to memorize large lists of words, numbers, and other types of information in a matter of minutes.
There have been studies focused on determining whether memory training methods are effective, but there is not enough data on how the brain changes when these training mechanisms are present. Also, because long-lasting changes in brain function or anatomy have not been precisely associated with mnemonic training, it is hard to know whether mnemonic techniques can create a physical indicator of how the brain is reacting to the process.
How mnemonic training improves memory
Researchers recruited 12 male and nine female memory athletes aged 20 to 36 years old, all of them being in the top 50 of the memory sports world ranking list. All of them attributed their prowess in remembering data to applied training in mnemonics. Their brain anatomy and function were analyzed as they were resting and also while learning around 70 different words. The results were compared to those of 51 control subjects without any experience in mnemonic strategies.
The control subjects were randomly assigned to six weeks of mnemonic training. Researchers observed “significantly improved memory performance in the participants of the mnemonic training condition in the second experimental session, and this improvement was significantly greater than seen in participants of the active and passive control groups.”
It seems that memory has little to do with brain structure as such, but rather with how the brain can make use of said structures through intensive and constant training. The most effective mnemonic technique known is Ioci, a technique that was first employed by Greeks and Romans on their speeches.
The key behind Ioci is to establish a mental route to follow, each action being linked to an element to be memorized. It is also known as the memory journey, memory palace, or mind palace technique. Cicero first discussed it in his De Oratore, among other ancient treatises.
“In this technique, the subject memorizes the layout of some building, or the arrangement of shops on a street, or any geographical entity which is composed of a number of discrete loci. When desiring to remember a set of items the subject ‘walks’ through these loci in their imagination and commits an item to each one by forming an image between the item and any feature of that locus. Retrieval of items is achieved by ‘walking’ through the loci, allowing the latter to activate the desired items,” wrote Lynn Nadel on the 1978 project The Hippocampus as a Cognitive Map.
The method is applied in several ways. World Memory Champion Ed Cooke describes imaging a familiar location that can be easily mapped on his mind. Then, he would insert a strange symbol on a particular spot to encode the item to be remembered. The more extravagant the symbol, the easier it would be to remember.
There are two main steps for applying Ioci. The first is to link the key ideas to a subject and then learn those concepts and how they relate to each other. Then, the keys are to be thought of as a single deep subject, then re-arranged in relation to a particular purpose, and then linked to a spatial order that’s coherent for the user.
Researchers hypothesize that mnemonic strategies are effective because they rely on visuospatial memory and navigation, rather than purely remembering data. Ioci has the user transforming abstract information into concrete patterns that can be processed by the memory-related brain structures, especially the hippocampus.