The art and science of memory: a journey towards remembering everything

Memory is everything we have. We are our memory and humans have been constantly searching for ways to improve memory. Mnemonics, a technique that boosts memory, has been around for centuries. Sherlock’s mind palace is but one example. It is more professionally known as “the method of loci”. The method of loci was extensively used by the ancient Greek and Roman orators. Together, with “the major system”, these two techniques perhaps are the most popular mnemonics.

About four years ago, I tried them and managed to remember pi to 1,100 digits within a week, by practicing some 30-60 minutes a day. Joshua Foer, another guy, also tried these techniques. He managed to train himself to be a professional mental athlete and won the United States Memory Championship. You can find his personal experience in his book Moonwalking with Einstein: the art and science of remembering everything.

Mnemonics is not just an art, but also a sound science. Earlier this year, Martin Dresler at Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich, Germany published a study on mnemonic training in the journal Neuron. Using fMRI, he showed that a six-week mnemonic training changed subjects’ brain networks and made their brains activities more like those of the world’s top 50 memory athletes. The training consisted of daily 30 minutes of a web-based program using the method of loci. Dresler found that the training dramatically improved the subjects’ memory performance, so that they could remember over three times more words than control subjects who did not attend the training. Meanwhile, after training, the subjects exhibited brain patterns more like those of the world’s most successful memory athletes. This study suggests that mnemonic training can change the brain to support superior memory.

The idea that our experience changes our brain is not unfamiliar to us. British scientist Eleanor A. Maguire’s pioneering research of London taxi drivers has been a milestone in this field. Eleanor found that London taxi drivers, who navigated in the city on a regular basis, had larger posterior hippocampus than control subjects who did not drive taxis. These taxi drivers also had larger posterior hippocampus than driving experience matched bus drivers who followed a set of predetermined routes during driving.

These studies encourage us to set out on a new journey towards better memory, and a more fulfilled life. Stay tuned, we will introduce more on this topic.


Married people have lower levels of stress hormone than single people do

Recently Brian Chin at Carnegie Mellon University published an interesting paper on Psychoneuroendocrinology. Chin showed that compared to single people, married people have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol in their saliva. The level of salivary cortisol resembles that in the blood. Notably, in this study, the salivary cortisol was measured during waking hours on three separate days. This suggests that the level of cortisol here reflects the basal or chronic level of stress response in the body.

Stressed people, shift-time workers, sleep deprived individuals, patients receiving hormone therapies, depressed people (melancholic), and overweight people often exhibit high levels of cortisol. Chin’s study suggests that single people are more stressed than married people and that marriage buffers chronic stress.

This finding reminds me of several insightful studies published years ago. When threatened by electric shock in the laboratory, compared to women holding a male stranger’s hand or no hand at all, married women holding their husband’s hand exhibited attenuated brain activation in areas representation threat responses such as the anterior insula. This threat buffering effect varied with marital quality, so women with higher marital quality show much less activation in the threat-related brain areas.

High-quality partner support is the magic here. I will treat this topic thoroughly in my forthcoming book Psychology for Pregnancy . Again I’ll keep you updated.