A recent study conducted by the Stanford University School of Medicine shows that simple mnemonic devices can be taught to individuals with no prior memorization skills, giving them memory ability on par with “trained” memory athletes. Memory athletes compete in tournaments and competitions where they memorize lists of unrelated words, random historical data, long digital sequences and other series of information (It must be a lot like going through medical school). Many of the memory athletes participating in the study attribute their memory abilities to their use of the “method of loci” or some similar mnemonic device.
Method of Loci
The “method of loci” utilizes the pairing of items to be memorized with a visual cue along a well-traveled route, such as a round-trip to work, or the grocery store. It was actually developed by ancient Greek and Roman orators and is where the phrases, “in the first place,” and “in the second place” came from.
According to the study, normal individuals, with zero previous memory training could be taught these mnemonics and brain activity could be seen to closely resemble that of memory athletes. FMRI scans concentrating on 71 brain regions implicated in memory and visuospatial processing were conducted on memory athletes, and shown to have increased activity during the use of the method of loci. 51 untrained non-athletes were scanned and given baseline memorization tests.
An example of the types of memorization tests was to memorize a random list of 72 words given a 20-minute memorization session. At the outset of the experiment, memory athletes averaged about 71 words on recall and non-athletes about 40 words.
The 51 untrained non-athletes were divided into three groups. One group underwent a 6-week course of daily online training sessions in the method of loci, while the other 2 groups either trained to improve a different facet of memory called “working memory,” or received no training at all. At the end of the 6-week training period, FMRI scans of the method of loci group appeared similar to trained memory athletes, and they could recall a similar number of words on the 72-word recall test up to 4 months after completing the training. No improvement was shown in the other 2 control groups.1
Mnemonic Training Enhances Memory Function
This study sheds light on to our ability to functionally improve neural activity, especially memory. This supports thinking of the brain as a muscle which can be trained, and methods, such as the method of loci, might be considered clinically to enhance memory capability. Other neural training methods should also be considered in enhancing brain function in traumatic brain injuries, or neurodegenerative diseases, especially at the outset of such conditions.
1. Dresler M, Shirer WR, Konrad BN, et al. Mnemonic Training Reshapes Brain Networks to Support Superior Memory. Neuron. 2017;93(5):1227-1235.e6.
Node Smith, associate editor for NDNR, is a fifth year naturopathic medical student at NUNM, where he has been instrumental in maintaining a firm connection to the philosophy and heritage of naturopathic medicine amongst the next generation of docs. He helped found the first multi-generational experiential retreat, which brings elders, alumni, and students together for a weekend campout where naturopathic medicine and medical philosophy are experienced in nature. Three years ago he helped found the non-profit, Association for Naturopathic ReVitalization (ANR), for which he serves as the board chairman. ANR has a mission to inspire health practitioners to embody the naturopathic principles through experiential education. Node also has a firm belief that the next era of naturopathic medicine will see a resurgence of in-patient facilities which use fasting, earthing, hydrotherapy and homeopathy to bring people back from chronic diseases of modern living; he is involved in numerous conversations and projects to bring about this vision.