Imagine opening the door to your suite. Inside your common room, you find your English professor snoring on the futon with his hands around a bag of pita chips and hummus. Confused, you walk into your bathroom only to slip on a banana and land in a pile of toilet paper. After getting up and brushing yourself off, you leave the bathroom and go to your room. Before you can enter, you hear loud music and you rush inside to find your grandparents dancing to Flo Rida. They’re wearing birthday hats and singing along. There’s a piñata above your bed, but you pull it down, slide into your bed, and fall asleep with the faint smell of melting chocolate in the air.
That story is how I will remember what I have to do this weekend. I need finish my readings for English, buy pita chips and hummus for my suitemates, clean our bathroom, get toilet paper, call my grandmother for her birthday, and catch up on sleep. Placing mental images that trigger memories in familiar spaces—like your suite, childhood home, or office building—is what’s called building a memory palace. It’s a memory technique more technically known as the method of loci that uses our spatial and visual memory to help us remember facts and ideas. It is much easier for most people to remember images assigned to specific places or visual stories with interesting twists than it is to remember, say, a to-do list. The method has been popularized by TV shows, such as BBC’s Sherlock, and books, such as Moonwalking with Einstein written by Joshua Foer, a 2004 graduate of Yale.
This tactic is also used by many of the world’s greatest super memorizers, including Foer. These people compete in memory contests held around the world in which they have to perform feats like memorizing the order of 52 cards in a deck or hundreds of random digits. Although the average person would have considerable difficulty doing such tasks, most super memorizers have “average” memories. However, they have spent years training their minds so that if they want to memorize something, they can.
Research on super memorizers has been done before, but a new study in Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience by Johannes Mallow and his colleagues provides evidence that memory “tricks” like the method of loci work. In the study, 11 super memorizers and 11 control participants were hooked up to an fMRI and asked to memorize dozens of numbers. Naturally, the super memorizers performed better and were able to memorize about three times more digits than the control participants. The fMRI scans showed that the brains of the super memorizers were less active than those of the control participants, most likely because it was easier for the super memorizers to remember the information. The scans of super memorizers also showed that, as they were memorizing, they accessed parts of their brain responsible for vision and navigation. These results are consistent with how neuroscientists would expect the method of loci to be mapped in the brain. The scans from the control participants, on the other hand, did not show significant activity in the areas of brain associated with vision and navigation.
The study also showed that the super memorizers used both their short-term and long-term memory, indicating that they were able to memorize numbers more easily because they already had built connections in their brains for specific numbers. For example, one super memorizer might always associate a green banana on the countertop of his house with the number 9. These familiar paths and methods of memorizing allow super memorizers to associate numbers with vivid imagery. In future studies, Mallow hopes to separate the steps in super memorizers’ “encoding and recalling processes” and compare these steps used in normal memorization.
So, why does this matter to us? We have alerts on our phones and Google Calendar to remind us about what we need to do, and we don’t need to memorize a deck of cards or the order of random numbers. Our memories, nonetheless, remain essential to us. They determine who we are and play a role in how we behave. In the next few decades, memory methods might be even used to help amnesiacs or Alzheimer’s patients. However, for college students, our impending midterms should be incentive enough to consider getting a head start in improving our memories.
Khush Dhaliwal is a freshman in Morse College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Featured image from Wikimedia Commons.)