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The secret to recalling 4,000 random numbers


A trick devised by a wandering Greek poet 2,500 years ago could explain why some people are astonishingly able to recall almost everything while others can forget their spouse's birthday.

Neurologist Eleanor Maguire of University College London recruited eight people who were among the top-placed in an event called the World Memory Championships, along with two others who had already been studied previously by scientists for their prodigious feats of recall.

The annual championships in London are a ritual for media amazement - they feature individuals capable of memorizing the faces and names of 99 unknown persons, epic-length poems, 4,000 digits, 400 random words and speed-recalling in perfect order 52 shuffled playing cards.

The brains of these 10 were then compared against those of 10 individuals of similar age who had average memories. The scientists asked both sets of volunteers to do non-memory intellectual tests and scanned their brains with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

The scans showed that brains with super-memories were especially active in three regions - the medial parietal cortex, retrosplenial cortex and the right posterior hippocampus. But the secret to their total recall was not higher intelligence, a better education or a different brain structure.

A close questioning of the memory champs found they all used mnemonics -  a mental technique attributed to a Greek lyric poet, Simonides of Ceos in 477, who recalled all the sights and landmarks along routes he had walked. Simonides' so-called "mental walk" technique is more formally called "method of loci".

Under this, an object or number is associated with an image, which is set down as a salient point on a mental road. This path is then retraced when it comes to recall time. For instance, the volunteers had to memorize a series of snowflakes that were each slightly different.

For most people, the images would quickly become a forgettable blur. But those with mnemonic skills would look on a specific part of each snowflake and associate it with another image, such as people, animals or objects.

"Superior memory was not driven by exceptional intellectual ability or structural brain differences," said Dr Maguire, who headed a team whose work was reported on Sunday in the monthly journal Nature Neuroscience. "Rather, we found that superior memorizers used a spatial learning strategy, engaging brain regions such as the hippocampus that are critical for memory and for spatial memory in particular."

For some, mnemonics may seem like an "overly complicated" skill that could have little relevance for everyday life, she added. But the loci way of organizing information could be highly useful to many people - and it may not be too hard to master as it is simply a more efficient variation of normal memory, she argued.

Previous studies have shown the technique has been useful for elderly people suffering from memory loss and for people with mental handicaps. Further research may confirm whether it could help those with brain injury or brain disease. -- AFP



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