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This Ancient Brain Training Can Dramatically Improve Memory

A fascinating study conducted during the 1980s illustrates this concept. The day after the Challenger disaster, a cognitive psychology professor at Emory University handed out a questionnaire to his students asking them to recollect their own experience of the event. How did they hear? Where were they? Whom were they with? 

Two and a half years later, the professor tracked down those same students and gave them the same questionnaire. This time, the students’ recollections differed wildly from their original answers, scoring less than three of seven on an accuracy scale. The best part? Students ranked claimed to be “confident” or “very confident” that their memory was accurate. 1 

That’s our baseline.

But there also exists a class of athletes of the mind, competing in the World Memory Championships, who can do quite a bit more than remember where they were during the Challenger disaster. These brainiacs are in a class of their own. One example: after being given 20 minutes to memorize a list of 72 random nouns, the average score was 71.

Researchers then had untrained people take the same test. The average score was 26. 2

Which begs the question, “What separates them from us?”

How To Create A Memory Palace
To Learn & Remember More

The answer may be an ancient brain training technique known as Memory Palace. The technique draws its name from a Greek tale about a poet named Simonides. No sooner was he called from a recitation by a messenger from the gods then the palace he had just exited collapsed. All of the noblemen inside were crushed beyond recognition. 

In order to recall who sat where, Simonides thought deeply about the images and objects at the table, assigning one to each attendee. Thus, Memory Palace was born.

Today, the technique is based on creating a mental setting (or palace) with various “loci,” or stations, where you’ve stored information. To try for yourself, just follow this three-step plan:3

  1. Explore a new place you’ve never been to. It can be a park, room, or palace. As you explore, create a mental picture (and even take real pictures if it will help). Familiarize yourself with the location until you can conduct the exploration in your own mind.
  2. In a relaxed environment, visualize your location again. Mentally walk through it and think of different ways to navigate it. Once you’ve picked a route with a clear start and end point, walk that route forwards and backwards a number of times.
  3. Choose loci to store information in. Each locus should be a unique point in your mental walkthrough. Once you have your loci picked out, assign pieces of information you need to memorize, one per each locus. As you need to recall them, walk through your mental palace.

If this sounds too advanced for you, don’t despair just quite yet. When doctors conducted MRI scans on memory athletes, they found their brains were essentially the same as normal people. The difference only became clear when doctors conducted functional MRI scans. These tests showed that two regions of memory athletes’ brains were much more active: memory and spatial learning.

So next time you’re helping your daughter memorize the presidents, trying to ensure you have every slide in your presentation down pat, or just challenging yourself to remember how to get to a friend’s house without GPS, give Memory Palace a try.

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References:

1. Konnikova, Maria. "Why We Remember So Many Things Wrong". The New Yorker.

2. Devlin, Hannah. "Ancient Technique Can Dramatically Improve Memory, Research Suggests". the Guardian.

3. "How To Create A Memory Palace/Journey". Art of Memory.

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