After spending six weeks cultivating an internal "memory palace," people more than doubled the number of words they could retain in a short time period and their performance remained impressive four months later.
The technique, which involves conjuring up vivid images of objects in a familiar setting, is credited to the Greek poet Simonides of Ceos, and is a favored method among so-called memory athletes.
The study also revealed that after just 40 days of training, people's brain activity shifted to more closely resemble that seen in some of the world's highest ranked memory champions, suggesting that memory training can alter the brain's wiring in subtle but powerful ways.
The study, published in the journal Neuron, recruited 23 of the 50 top-scoring memory athletes in an annual contest called the World Memory Championships.
The athletes were given 20 minutes to recall a list of 72 random nouns and they scored, on average,
By contrast, an untrained control group recalled an average of 26 words.
This group then followed a daily 30-minute training regime where they practiced walking through a chosen familiar environment, such as their own home, and placing objects in specific locations.
After 40 days of 30-minute training sessions, the participants who had average memory skills at the start more than doubled their memory capacity, recalling 62 words on average -- and four months later, without continued training, they could remember 48 words from a list of 72.