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Want a Better Memory? Practice, Practice, Practice

Mnemonic techniques the tool of choice for memory masters

MONDAY, Dec. 16, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Ever been envious of a friend who knows everyone's telephone number by heart? Or of your partner's ability to never forget a name?

Having an excellent memory may not be as elusive as you think.

People with superior memories don't have brains different from those less successful at remembering, a new study by British researchers has found. Rather, people renown for their memory have trained certain parts of their brain to store and retrieve information, a feat that others with less proficient memories have not yet mastered.

"Although more research is needed, it may be that we all have the potential and neural capacity to improve our memories," says Eleanor Maguire, a neuropsychologist at the Institute of Neurology in London, and the lead author of the study.

In their study, which appears in the new issue of Nature Neuroscience, the researchers examined eight people who had placed at the top in the World Memory Championships, as well as two other people who had been studied before for their remarkable ability to remember things.

Then the researchers found 10 people of comparable educational and occupational backgrounds, but who were not celebrated for their memories.

All participants underwent two to three hours of testing, including general intelligence exams, as well as structural brain imaging and functional brain imaging.

The researchers found that those with superior memories weren't more intelligent than those with average memories. Nor did they have any obvious brain differences, such as more gray matter from years spent challenging themselves mentally.

Using magnetic resonance imaging, the researchers discovered that those with superior memories used the right posterior hippocampus, medial parietal cortex, and the retrosplenial cortex areas of their brain more than the control subjects did.

These areas are critical for spatial memory, Maguire says. "Events that happen to us invariably occur at a certain time and in a certain place. The 'where' an event occurs is its spatial context."

The participants with great memories didn't perform exceptionally well in all areas of memory, however.

When it came to remembering snowflake patterns, for instance, both groups performed equally. And when it came to remembering faces, those with superior memory did slightly better than the control group. It was only in the area of remembering numbers that those known for their memory skills excelled.

They reported using mnemonic techniques -- specific memory strategies -- to remember things. The three areas of the brain that were used more often by the memory experts may reflect their use of these techniques, specifically "route strategies," the researchers report.

One common mnemonic technique is the "method of loci," in which specific objects to be remembered are placed along an imaginary path through which a person can mentally walk.

Michael Stadler is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Missouri-Columbia who teaches the method of loci to students. When he teaches students to remember a list of grocery items, for example, he has them mentally walk through their home and place grocery items along the way.

"They step through locations and imagine each thing in those places. They're very simple techniques," he says.

There are a variety of mnemonic techniques that you can employ, Maguire says. "Even something as simple as tying a knot in a handkerchief is a memory aid, in that it helps you to remember something," she says. "Many of the most effective mnemonics involve imagery or involve processing something more deeply so that it forms associations and has a better chance of being remembered."

Learning to use a mnemonic technique may help anyone who wishes to have a better memory, particularly when it comes to numbers, Stadler says. "It's kind of encouraging for all of us," he says. "We've all got the hard drive, but we need the program."

What To Do

To learn how "sleeping on it" can help you to remember something, visit the American Psychological Association. For tips on improving your study habits and memory, check with Middle Tennessee State University.

SOURCES: Eleanor Maguire, Ph.D., neuropsychologist, the Institute of Neurology, London, England; Michael Stadler, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology, University of Missouri-Columbia; December 2002, Nature Neuroscience
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