The Secret Behind a Better Memory

It's Not What You Know, but How You Memorize That Matters

From the WebMD Archives

Dec. 16, 2002 -- The difference behind having a stellar memory and an average one may not be related to intelligence or genetics, but how you go about memorizing things. A new study shows people with superior memories use a learning strategy that activates more gray matter in the brain than typical memorization techniques.

Researchers say that means there may be hope for even the most forgetful, if you're willing to learn the tricks. Their findings are published in the January 2003 issue of Nature Neuroscience.

The study authors say one of the biggest reasons little is known about what makes one person clearly better at remembering things than someone else is the myth that people with superior memories are somehow different than everyone else, so information about how they remember cannot be applied to everyone. But, as the researchers write, "It is equally possible that individuals with exceptional memory merely make more or better use of memory capabilities that we all possess, or perhaps they use clever mnemonic devices or learning strategies."

In their study, researchers compared the skills and techniques used by average people and a group of individuals renowned for outstanding memory at the World Memory Championships. They found that both groups were similar in terms of verbal and nonverbal skills and brain structure, as measured by MRI (magnetic resonance imaging).

But when it came to memorizing a series of items, such as numbers, faces, or snowflake patterns, the researchers found that superior memory was not driven by exceptional intellect or differences in brain structure. Instead, those with superior memory used many more areas of the brain involved in memory and locations. When asked after the test, these superior memorizers said they used a mnemonic strategy to remember the series of items.

In particular, they said they used a method in which they placed the objects to be remembered in along an imaginary path through which the person could mentally walk.

Study author Eleanor A. Maguire of the Institute of Neurology at University College London and colleagues say their findings suggest that superior memory isn't due to superior intelligence or brain structure, it's due to superior memorization strategies.

They say the next test will be to teach people to use this technique and then compare their abilities to the memory champions to see if there are other brain differences not revealed by this study.

SOURCE: Nature Neuroscience, January 2003.

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