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In my last article, I promised to explain five gimmicks that memory athletes use. These can be accomplished even by memory wimps, though per...

Memory Athlete Gimmicks. Tip 1: Familiar Locations

In my last article, I promised to explain five gimmicks that memory athletes use. These can be accomplished even by memory wimps, though perhaps not at the competition level. Most people don't want to be memory athletes, but they would like to remember things more easily and reliably. These techniques can accomplish that. Besides, they are fun.

Several thousand years ago, ancient Greek orators were noted for their ability to give hours-long speeches from memory. How did they pull off such astonishing feats? They invented a visual imaging technique where thoughts were mentally captured as images in the mind’s eye and they would recall what was to be said by recalling the images. Images are much easier to remember than words.

One common imaging technique is known as a method of location (MoL). This technique is also called "Memory Palace." That is, mental images are attached to certain locations in the three-dimensional space imagined in the mind’s eye. The idea is to use objects in a familiar area as anchor points or pegs for hanging the mental images of what you are trying to remember. Surveys of competitive memory “athletes” reveal that 9 out of 10 use some kind of imagined location device.

Use a memory palace to improve memory capability
 Here is a simple example. Consider the living room of your apartment or house. You are very familiar with each object and its location in the room. You use these as mental pegs, which is easy to do, because you already know what they are. You just mentally walk about the room and mentally see each familiar object. In turn, one at a time, you attach a mental image of what you are trying to remember on the object peg in the room. For example, suppose you identify the front door as a starting point. The first object encountered might be a recliner chair, then a lamp, then a sofa, then a coffee table, then the TV set, and so on. Now suppose you want to remember a daily "to do" list. You might remember the trip to the post office by imagining the mailman at your door, the doctor's appointment by seeing a stethoscope lying in the recliner, the grocery store by seeing the lamp making a stalk of celery sprout, the bookstore trip by seeing books stacked on your sofa, the kids' soccer practice by seeing them kick the ball into the sofa, the evening PTA meeting by seeing a TV film crew filming you there, and so on.

You can use other locations, such as body parts, specific places in your car, or highly familiar routes in the yard or at work. To recall these stored items, simply retrace your steps. Like fishing lines, each memory is hooked to a location and you just reel them in.

These techniques work, even in older people with no formal memory training. A recent survey that tested the usefulness of image location in older people found that it was effective in improving their memory capability. A study of people with superior memory revealed that nine of 10 employed the method spontaneously.[1]

Although generally used to remember objects, numbers or names, the MoL has also been used in people with depression to successfully store bits and pieces of happy autobiographical memories that they can easily retrieve in times of stress.[2]

Modernizing the Mnemonic

In early 2012, a team of Canadian researchers gave the ancient MoL mnemonic a 21st century facelift. [3]The team constructed several detailed virtual reality environments to serve as loci, rather than letting MoL learners generate their own. Researchers allowed 142 undergraduate volunteers only five minutes to familiarize themselves with the virtual environment before giving two thirds of them instructions in using the MoL to memorize 110 unrelated words. Some were told to pick a familiar environment, while others were allowed to use the virtual environment they just navigated. The other third didn’t receive any specific instructions on memory techniques.

Both MoL groups outperformed the controls. They were 10 to 16 percent more accurate in their recall, and students who used the virtual environment performed just as well as those told to generate their own landmarks, even though in both groups the students admitted they weren't diligent in using MoL. It does take practice to be good at it.

In a recent TED talk, Kasper Bormans described using a virtual reality replica of their home to help patients with Alzheimer’s disease “store” the memory of their loved one’s faces using the MoL.[4]

The main point is that people can improve their memory ability by learning to use MoL. However, with age the brain gradually loses the flexibility to change in response to training. Nonetheless, many studies show that MoL successfully slows memory decline in the normal aging population, but why this happens is a complete mystery. That is, until recently.

Thickening of the Brain

Any time the brain learns something, physical and chemical changes occur in the brain, even in the elderly. Thus MoL should be able to change the brain for the better. In 2010 a Norwegian team set out to look for the most obvious signs of MoL-induced structural changes in the brain.

Expert instructors led 23 volunteers with an average age of 61 through an intensive eight-week long program. These volunteers managed to use MoL to remember three lists of 30 words in sequential order in no more than 10 minutes, a remarkable feat of memory! The control group – matched in age, sex and education- were instructed to “live as usual” for the eight weeks.

MRI brain maps identified a surprisingly large morphological change in the cerebral cortex of the MoL-trained volunteers.[5]The amount of improvement in memory performance correlated with the amount of increased cortical thickening. Similarly, a later study by this group showed that learning MoL increased the integrity of elderly participant’s white matter compared to controls.

Rewiring the Brain

Two groups of researchers decided to determine whether learning MoL alters brain activity patterns. Scientists in Sweden recruited young volunteers in their twenties and elderly participants in their sixties and used PET scans to follow changes in their brain activity as they adopted MoL to remember a list of random words. All of the younger volunteers – but only half of the elderly – remembered roughly four more words than they had in their initial test.[6]

What about the half of elderly participants who didn't improve? One important clue was their complete lack of activation of MoL-associated brain regions during testing, prompting researchers to wonder whether these volunteer actually used the MoL.  A subsequent informal chat revealed that many older participants found it difficult to associate the loci with the words under the experiment’s tight time constraints, felt frustrated and gave up.

So although a promising technique for many, MoL training is difficult, particularly for the elderly who are less able to generate and rely on a mental map of distinctive landmarks. But I know from experience that practicing MoL improves one's imagination, and that in turn, improves the ability to get more benefit from MoL. Besides, this is a more fun way to memorize.

[1] Maguire E. A., et al. (2003).  Routes to remembering: the brains behind superior memory. Nature  Neurosci. 6(1):90-5.
[2] Dalgleish, Tim, et al. (2014). Method-of-Loci as a mnemonic device to facilitate access to self-affirming personal memories for Individuals with depression. Clinical Psychological Science, 1 (2): 156-162

[3] Legge E. L. et al. (2012) Building a memory palace in minutes: equivalent memory performance using virtual versus conventional environments with the Method of Loci .Acta Psychol (Amst). 141(3):380-90

[5] Engvig A et al. (2010) Effects of memory training on cortical thickness in the elderly. NeuroImage. 52: 1667–1676.

[6] Nyberg L et al. (2003).Neural correlates of training-related memory improvement in adulthood and aging. PNAS 100 (23), 13728-33 PMID: 14597711