If random figures are read out one second apart, most people can retain around seven of them in the correct order. Participants in the annual World Memory Championships on the other hand remember hundreds of figures in this discipline of memory sport.

This type of mnemonic does not depend on extraordinary brain structures. In the course of our research over the past few years, we have tested numerous memory competitors and examined their brains using magnetic resonance imaging. The results showed that their brain structures hardly differ from those of the control group. All memory competitors who participated in the research also emphasised that their memory skills were not down to extraordinary ability but instead due to extensive training of mnemonic techniques.

The majority of these memory strategies are based on the same fundamental principle: imagining an image, visualising scenarios and places, then later using these as a structure to recall the information that has in fact been learned. For example, using a pre-trained mnemonic system, the series of figures 1415926535 could be translated into a sequence of images, such as a door with tulips behind it, then slime flowing out of the tulips and an eel swimming in the slime. When required, this simple-to-remember image sequence can then be re-translated into the first ten decimal places after Pi.

Boris N. Konrad and Martin Dresler

Images as the language of mnemonics

JAM #28 — Image Language

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Illustration: Dicey Studios

It would be logical to assume that a distinct ability is required to imagine such surreal scenarios. To investigate this, we asked the participants to fill out questionnaires in order to test their imagination abilities. Surprisingly, many of the memory competitors investigated by us perceived their imagination abilities to not be particularly strong. They might know that they are thinking about slimy tulips but cannot see this image in detail in front of their inner eye — but this is actually enough to be able to benefit from mnemonic techniques. The questionnaire results had no influence on the success of memory training.

However, in our neuroscientific investigations we found differences in the functional connectivity of the brain: Changes observed in memory competitors included the visual cortical network as well as the medial prefrontal cortex and the medial temporal lobe containing the hippocampus (which is attributed particular importance for memory formation and consolidation)..

Additionally, it was shown that mnemonic training in novices quickly produced similar effects. Six weeks of daily practice for half an hour caused changes in neural network patterns which were similar to those seen in the most successful memory competitors. At the same time, and in relation to this, trained participants performed twice as well when learning random word lists. Memory competitors and novices alike displayed a significantly more extensive and longer memory performance with less brain activity when memorising and recalling information. It appears that learning with images increased neural efficiency.

Now and again, popular texts present different types of learners, with some people being predominantly visual learners, whilst others remember information better when learning aurally or kinaesthetically. This is considered scientifically outdated, and learning using mnemonic techniques does take place predominantly visually. Even those born blind at birth benefit from them, even if not to the same extent.

In a way every person is a visual learner, and mnemonic techniques help us make use of this for non-visual information as well.

Boris N. Konrad is a researcher and lecturer at the Donders Institute and the Raboud University Medical Centre in Nijmegen, Netherlands. He holds several memory sport world records.

Martin Dresler is an Associate Professor for cognitive neurosciences at the Donders Institute and the Raboud University Medical Centre in the Netherlands. He joined Die Junge Akademie in 2017.