Hack your brain to remember almost anything

(CNN)The reigning World Memory Champion, Alex Mullen, can memorize the order of a deck of cards in 17 seconds. But in some ways, he’s just as forgetful as the rest of us.

“I still forget plenty of basic things, like where I left my keys,” said Mullen, a medical student at the University of Mississippi.


Memory athletes such as Mullen can remember hundreds or even thousands of random words, numbers and images — a feat that may seem unbelievable to onlookers. But according to a study published today, anyone can train their brain using the same tricks as the world’s top competitors, reshaping their brain’s networks in the process.
    For the study, researchers recruited 23 of the world’s top-ranked memory athletes and compared their brains with those of people who had never practiced memory techniques at all. Then, they put some of the newcomers through a memory training program and observed how their brains changed.
    The more the rookies practiced the techniques, the more their brain scans started to resemble the memory athletes’ — and it took only six weeks.
    “These really incredible memory feats … are not some form of inborn talent. It’s really just training,” said Martin Dresler, a neuroscientist at Radboud University in the Netherlands and the lead author of the study.
    Mullen, a relative newcomer to the scene who was not involved in the study,was none too surprised. The top-ranked memory athlete said that, before he started training, “I felt like my memory wasn’t that great.
    “You can do things that you probably don’t think you’re capable of,” he said.

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    Fact: Alex Mullen, the 2015 and 2016 World Memory Champion, can memorize an entire deck of cards in 17 seconds.

    Gray matter’s anatomy

    Boris Nikolai Konrad, a researcher in Dresler’s lab and a memory athlete himself, had expected to find an enlarged hippocampus — the brain’s memory center — in memory athletes. But instead, their brains, and even his own, looked no different from the beginners’.
    “It surprised me that we did not find structural differences in the brain,” said Konrad, who is ranked 24th worldwide by the World Memory Sports Council.
    His hypothesis was based on studies of London taxi drivers, who must memorize thousands of streets and landmarks for a notoriously difficult test called “The Knowledge.” Their brains were previously found to have larger hippocampi.
    According to Stern and Greicius, this approach to the brain could reveal how diseases like Alzheimer’s — which may begin as a memory problem — jump tracks and spread along these networks to other regions of the brain, disrupting areas dealing with personality and sleep.
    Stern is also interested in what brain networks may reveal about why “superagers” stay sharp well into their golden years.
    But Greicius cautions that memory training has not been proved to prevent or slow the effects of old age or dementia, despite the claims of the brain game industry.
    In a 2014 open letter signed by study authors Greicius and Dresler, 75 scientists slammed the brain game industry’s “exaggerated and misleading claims (that) exploit the anxiety of older adults.”
    “There’s no real-world clinical connection at this stage whatsoever,” Greicius said.
    There is no indication a memory palace has any impact on everyday memory either, said Stern — which may be why top memory athletes still lose their keys. The memory gains seem to appear only when using the memory palace.
    When memory athletes are fooled — by being told they won’t be tested on a list of words and then getting quizzed by researchers anyway — they don’t perform much better than average, said Konrad, who is continuing to study his fellow memory athletes.

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    Konrad, who also trained the newcomers to build their first memory palace, said that one finding in particular stood out to him as motivating: Everyone improved, regardless of where they started.
    Even for the reigning world champion, Mullen has managed to surprise himself when he thought he had hit a wall or reached a personal limit. He has come a long way since his college years, when he was frustrated with forgetting things from one class to the next, he said.
    “Before I learned about the techniques, I was an average Joe Schmoe,” Mullen said.
    “Not to say that I’m not an average Joe Schmoe anymore,” he added.

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