The 2005 World Memory Championships

memory championships.jpgThis weekend, the World Memory Championships are coming to Oxford University. The event is being hosted by the UK Festival of the Mind, which involves lectures from memory champions and experts on advanced learning techniques.

On the BBC Radio Four Today programme this morning, Dominic O’Brien, eight times World Memory Champion, demonstrated his ability to remember the order of a shuffled pack of cards, after just a few minutes studying them. You can listen to the item again here.

In recent years, psychologists and neuroscientists have begun studying superior memory and memory feats, although the area is relatively neglected compared with the study of memory deficit.

In 2002 Dr. Eleanor Maguire at UCL’s Functional Imagaing Lab in London used fMRI scanning to compare the brain structure and function of 10 memory champions with that of 10 healthy controls. To find out what they discovered, read on by clicking below.

Although no differences in brain structure or general cognitive ability (excluding memory) were found between the groups, a difference was found in the distribution and intensity of brain activation during the learning of new information. These differences weren’t just a consequence of the memory champs learning more. Maguire et al. used three item types: digits, faces and snowflakes. The memory champs order- and item-recognition performance was superior to the controls with digits, was less so for faces and equivalent for snowflakes, thus allowing some control for the amount of material memorised.

Some brain areas, like the right cerebellum, were more active in the memory champs regardless of performance. Other areas were active in the champs, but not the controls, contingent on performance. But Maguire et al. drew most attention to those areas that were only active in the memory champs irrespective of item type – left medial superior parietal gyrus, bilateral retrosplenial cortex, and right posterior hippocampus – areas associated with spatial memory and navigation (the right posterior hippocampus was found to be enlarged in a sample of London taxi drivers, Maguire et al. 2000). Maguire et al. concluded this brain activity probably reflected the use by every memory champ, but none of the controls, of the ‘method of loci’ mnemonic, an ancient memory strategy that involves imagining oneself encountering items along a route.

So if the memory champions special memory is due only to their use of a spatial strategy, perhaps there is hope for us all. But therein lies the weakness of this study. As discussed by Jack and Roepstorff (2002), a premise of cognitive mapping is that subjects all perform to the same ‘script’, as derived from experimenters’ instructions. It is little wonder that differences in brain activation were found if the memory champions were reading from a different script; were employing a powerful mnemonic when the controls were not. In this instance functional imaging has served only to support what self-report investigations could have told us. It might be more enlightening to investigate whether differences in brain activity between memory champions and controls persist, even when the latter have been trained to use the champions’ mnemonic strategies.

Abstract of the Maguire Study here.

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