If you paid attention in history class, you know that ancient Greece is known as the cradle of Western civilization. What started in Greece spread to Rome and then outward to France, Spain, Germany, and the UK. At least that’s how the textbooks put it; it can be harder to recognize how these ancient people might impact day to day living in modern times. Well, a new look at an ancient memory enhancement strategy is showing us how we might all benefit from looking back at the path blazed by the ancients.
Our memories are what make us who we are. Humans have been able to evolve so far beyond other animals because we aren’t limited to using our instincts to survive, we can learn from others and a deep well of personal experiences. It’s a precious gift passed down throughout the ages, one that shouldn’t be squandered.
The latest study comes out of Radboud University, located in Nijmegen, Netherlands. The study was done by Professor Martin Dresler and his research team using a modern take on an ancient study trick. The technique is known as “loci training,” which is designed to take advantage of the brain’s spatial abilities to enhance memory.
The term loci training comes from the Latin word loci, meaning places. As an English speaker, this probably rings a bell; the Latin root gives us many spatial terms we use today like local, locate, location, and more. It has this name because the technique involves imagining your memory in spatial terms, so your trips down memory lane become a bit more literal.
Trainees are tasked with picturing a space in their mind and then filling up that space with the items they wish to remember. Going back to the “memory lane” metaphor, imagine a street lined with homes and then imagine that each address represents a new item to remember. The theory is that by doing this, you’re adding a new dimension to your memory, bringing the part of your brain that works with space and directions to help you remember facts.
Researchers tested their theories with 74 different individuals. There were 51 ordinary people and 23 “memory athletes. That’s right, if you don’t know, already there are people out there who put their memory skills to the test for prizes. Imagine being handed a freshly shuffled deck of cards for a few moments and then being tasked with rearranging a fresh deck to match the last in just a matter of minutes.
It seems impossible to most people, but people can train themselves to do this sort of thing. These memory athletes were picked because it was found that their brains were not physiologically abnormal. Instead, they had been able to develop their abilities using training. Scientists used this data to see what brains that use memory training look like in action under MRIs.
After the memory athletes had been put through their tasks the 51 ordinary participants were brought in. They different tasks and activities while being monitored via MRI so their brains could be monitored. As with any proper study, there was the text group and the control group. The two groups were matched as closely as possible so that if there was a left-handed female in her early twenties in the test group, they found another left-handed female in her early twenties for the control group so that solid comparisons could be made. That’s right, left handed. It’s been found that there are subtle ways that handedness impacts thinking
Both groups were given 72 words to memorize every session and then tested to see what they could remember after two lengths of time, 20 minutes and 25 hours. The experimental group was put through 6 weeks of training and monitoring using the loci method, and it was found that after this training the portions of their brain dedicated to spatial recognition lit up during tasks. Even months after the training was done the impact still lingered, showing that temporary training can lead to long lasting results.
It should be noted that the brain is incredibly complex. While all human brains share many similarities, there is also an incredible amount of diversity. Some people have above or below memories by nature. This explains people who have a natural “photographic” memory and individuals who struggle with remembering events that happened just minutes ago. Therefore, even with training, not everyone will be able to reach the same heights.
Still, that doesn’t mean that people should lose hope. 99.99% of people will never run as fast as Usain Bolt, but we could all run a bit faster if we tried to, and the competitors in the Paralympics show that even people with devastating natural disabilities can do incredible things.
No matter who you are or what your circumstances are it’s worth working on your memory. You can look at your brain like a muscle, if you don’t use it you lose it. If you want to have the best brain possible, you need to exercise it, just like you might exercise your literal muscles to become physically stronger. We already recognize the Greek influence in physical training, the first Olympics were held in Greece. Now we know they can also help us flex our mental abilities.