Two Steps Closer to Memory Athleticism

The USA Memory Championship was held last month. While this is much more hardcore than memorizing facts and formulas for a test, it’s still worth exploring. Participants in the championship compete in a number of memorization categories. For instance, one qualifying event requires "mental athletes" to memorize 117 color photographs and the first and last names of the people in the photographs in 15 minutes. The athletes then have to recall as many names as possible from a different order of the photographs.

The final event of the championship requires the remaining three contenders to memorize two decks of 52 playing cards, arranged in the same exact order in a five-minute time period. There is then a two-minute hiatus before the athletes have to recall the order of the cards. They are allowed 15 seconds per card to answer. Mental athletes train for each event using a variety of techniques, which college students can adopt as well to help with their studies.

Two techniques that have been studied recently are visualization and exercise. Joshua Foer, a science writer, U.S. memory champion, and record holder, used a spatial and visual memory technique to set a record for the card deck recall event. He would think up images to represent each card and "store" that image inside a familiar building.

This ties in with the findings of MIT and Harvard researchers and Scientific American, which indicated that a memory stored as "visual long-term memory" has a better chance of surviving. Participants of an experiment were shown 3,000 images of different scenes, then 200 pairs of images— one old and one new— and were asked to indicate the old image. Participants were 96% accurate at spotting the old images, but only if the types of scenes were different. If the images were similar scenes, like two office spaces, the participants could only succeed by remembering the old scenes from, as Scientific American reports, a vast amount of detail. They were less successful in that case, but still scored an astonishing 84% correct. Researchers at MIT and Harvard argue that if the images are meaningful to the participant, they’re more likely to be remembered, usually by connecting pre-existing knowledge to the image.

Exercise is also useful for encouraging memorization, as well as relieving stress. According to the New York Times, researchers at Dartmouth College recruited 54 adults between the ages 18 to 36 in healthy conditions, but without a regular exercise routine. The participants took a memory test where they would see images flash across a computer screen. After the first set, another would flash across and the participants were required to note by keystrokes whether they’d seen the image before. The group was split between a control group that would remain sedentary, and another that would walk or jog four times a week for at least 30 minutes.

After a month, they were tested again. Many of the volunteers had improved their memory scores, but not all of them did. Those who had exercised for the past month and the day of the test did better on the memory exam, and also experienced less anxiety than the other participants. However, the researchers also found that some gene variants hindered the ability of exercise to improve memory, for example, about 30% of people from a European Caucasian heritage did not improve recall despite regular exercise.

This means that for college students, to enhance memory, it’s probably best to use several techniques, including exercising regularly and practicing visual memorization.

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