We know the brains of “memory athletes” are different—but
it’s not because they started out that way. The tasks that
elite mnemonic athletes undertake in competitions may seem
impossible to most of us, no matter how intelligent we are.
Memorizing 500 digits in five minutes,
for example, or thousands of random words in sequence.
Yet new research shows that most people can
successfully master and apply the memorization techniques
that memory athletes use. Even more
fascinating, research indicates that as we apply these
techniques, we literally rewire our brains on a large scale.
The Radboud University research team, led by Martin Dresler,
compared the minds of memory champions to those of people in
the general population using brain scans and behavioral
tests. These comparisons revealed a different pattern of
brain connectivity in the brains of top memory athletes
versus the controls. The team also found that the
changes to brain connection patterns caused by learning a
common memorization technique began to appear after a period
of weeks. Not surprisingly, these subjects were able to
significantly improve their memory skills and exhibit
behaviors similar to those of memory athletes.
It makes sense that learning new skills throughout our
lives could be healthy for our brains, but there isn’t
complete scientific evidence for its efficacy. However, some
research links specific changes in the brain to certain
skills. For example, one study showed that taxi drivers in London
developed more gray matter in their hippocampi as they
learned to navigate the streets of the city, and therefore
had larger-than-average memory centers. The scientists were
able to definitively say that not only did the drivers
have larger memory centers built up by their time on the
roads, but that the development of this form of memory
might inhibit development in other areas.
Hit The (Brain) Gym
“I think the interesting part is that not only can you boost
memory in a similar way behaviorally in normal subjects
compared to memory athletes,” Dresler says, “but on the brain level you
see a reflection of that behavioral increase, and you drive
the brains of naive subjects into the patterns of the best
memorizers in the world.”
The results of this study concur with recent findings
that some Alzheimer’s patients appear to be resistant to memory loss. The idea that
the typical plaques associated with Alzheimer’s may be
present in a brain that continues to function normally
suggests there may be protective factors involved, or
practices we can adopt to maintain healthier minds as we age.
The results of this super memorizer study certainly imply
that rewiring the brain is within reach for most of us.