One of the irritating aspects of old age is the inability to remember names of people we once met as easily as we used to do, without much effort. It also applies when we walk around the supermarket, and try to remember, with perfect ease, every item we need to buy. Or faced with a speech to make, we can’t remember every point we are supposed to emphasise.
A solution to these dilemmas is apparently no mere pipe dream – as scientists have found anyone can develop a memory of world-beating proportion in just six weeks, using a simple technique. Known as ‘LOCI Training’, it is done by learning the visualisation of a map or journey, and assigning things to be memorised by landmarks on your route. Experts have found astonishing results – in one study, ordinary people who learned this method could almost match the performance of world memory champions.
The research, published in the journal Neuron found trainees could recall 62 words from a list of 72 within twenty minutes of learning them. This is only nine words behind the top-ranking performance for memory in the world – known as ‘memory athletes – and thirty-five more than a normal person could expect to remember.
The researchers, based at Stanford University, California, and the Max Plank Institute of Psychiatry in Munich, found the LOCI tactic helped people to learn more than three times the number of additional words than other types of memory training. And brain scans showed that even four months later, the brain had changed to be more like the experts, and could still remember twenty-two more extra words than before. This change was seen in the medical prefrontal cortex, known to be active when individuals relate new facts to pre-existing knowledge, and the right dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex, involved in efforts to learn strategically.
The LOCI method is thought to work as it uses the logical left side of the brain for navigation and the creative right side to visualise landmarks. Using the whole of the brain, rather than just one side, is linked to better memory. Lead author Martin Dresler, Assistant Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at Radboud University Medical Centre in the Netherlands, said: ‘After training we massively increased performance on memory tests. Not only can you induce a behaviour change, the training also indicates similar brain connectivity patterns as those seen in memory athletes.’
He added: ‘Once you are familiar with these strategies and know how to apply them, you can keep your performance high without much further training. To have your memory LOCI training, you start by assigning items to be memorised to objects in your house – for example, the bookcase, the coffee table and the lamp. Then go through the house in one direction, avoiding doubling back on yourself. Use permanent items such as the TV as prompts, rather than clothes which have been left on a chair which could be moved. This technique can then be expanded to other locations such as your route to work or ways through the supermarket. So a route with 52 points would allow you to memorise the order of a deck of cards. Memory champions can use several thousand points as memory hooks.’
Scientists are not exactly clear whether this method can help the memory of older people, but the elderly themselves can at least find out if the LOCI training works in their case. If nothing else, their knowledge is enhanced if not their memory.