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.
“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.