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Memory athlete to memory expert

memory experts

"Anyone can learn to improve their memory, but it’s not like they’ll remember everything."

Peter Oumanski

Boris Nikolai Konrad, guest researcher at the Donders Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging, Radboud University, Netherlands

I started training my memory to help with college exams. A few years later, in 2003, I became a memory athlete. During one type of event, you stare at a list of digits for an hour, then over the next two hours, you write down every one you can recall, in order. Most pros turn digits into a mental image—a 3 might become a billboard—then stick it in a known location, a method known as a Memory Palace. You might start out with only a few familiar sites, but you can gather more. I have about 80 palaces with 50 locations in each; when I go someplace new, I often explore to make a fresh palace.

When I finished my master’s ­degree, I decided to research the effects of these exercises, ­comparing the brains of memory athletes and noncompetitors. There’s nothing special about an athlete’s brain. Even scans of my own showed me to be exactly ­average, which was a little disappointing. We did find a difference in brain activity: When competitors are trying to remember more effectively, they employ different areas of the brain—such as those for visualization—in unison.

Anyone can learn to improve their memory, but it’s not like they’ll remember everything. For example, we showed test subjects a set of words, and told them to remember some but forget others. Later, the memory athletes could recall the targeted words better than the nonpros. When we asked for the words

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