Text: Patricia Michaud
Photo: DR

Memorization: an elite-level sport

Just like athletics of football, memorization has its own world championship. Anyone who wants to take part in the competition has to train hard. One tactic uses methods based on images and associations. But could these exercises also prevent cognitive aging?

Green desks are aligned with military precision, in sharp contrast with the informal clothing worn by the dozens of people seated in the rows. Many are sporting tracksuits, some are wearing baseball caps, and most have noise-cancelling headphones. With heads bowed and shoulders hunched, they are utterly focused on their task. In 2017, the city of Shenzhen hosted the World Memory Championships, a three-day competition in which participants from over 30 countries go head-to-head every year. The competitors wrestle with endless lists of words, associations of names and faces, card decks, and numbers to memorise. Munkhshur Narmandakh won the event in China, becoming the first woman to win since the contest was created in 1991 by the father of mental mapping, Tony Buzan, and chess Grand-master Raymond Keene.

The young, 18-year-old woman from Mongolia successfully memorised the order of 37 decks of cards, or 1,924 cards in a row.

Called mnemonists, these memory athletes are becoming increasingly numerous. According to estimates, there are tens of thousands of such individuals in Asia, where television shows like The Brain have amassed quite a following. To join the ranks of the international elite of this discipline, called “memory sport” by its adepts, competitors do indeed have to train themselves like any other high-level athlete. Interestingly, the ability to boost one’s memory isn’t limited to a handful of geniuses. For example, a study published in 2017 in the journal Neuron showed that anyone can significantly improve their memory by regularly practicing the “place” method. Nevertheless, according to Françoise Marie Thuillier, president of the French Memory Sports Council, participants do share some characteristics. “In Asia, there are quite a few excellent competitors who are in their twenties or even younger. In France, the average age is around 30. They are often brilliant and multi-lingual engineers, lawyer, or research-ers. I’ve also met a number of people who don’t meet this stereotype and who are always very endearing.”

All ages

Like the authors of the study published in Neuron, Françoise Marie Thuillier notes the methods used by memory athletes, which focus on images and associations, are accessible to everyone when reduced to their simplest form. They make it possible “to learn things, such as a language, more efficiently, and increase concentration”.

The specialist gives three recommendations to improve your memory: practice the “place method”, use mental images and create haikus.

These short Japanese poems celebrate the present and make you “be creative while appreciating the current moment”. An enthusiast of Japanese culture, Thuillier stresses that enjoyment – especially when it comes to learning – is essential.

The Swiss Memory Training Association (Schweizerischer Verband für Gedächtnistraining, SVGT) reports similar findings: “It’s a proven fact. Learning is not just a cognitive process but also an emotional one,” says Margit Bittmann, an executive officer with the SVGT. In fact, the practitioners who work under the association strive to offer their clients “holistic support that takes into account their environment and lifestyle.” Located on the opposite side of the spectrum from memory sport, the goal in this context is quality as opposed to speed and quantity. “Our clients are of all ages and have all kinds of needs. They range from school children who are having a tough time learning their lessons and seniors who lose their keys too often to victims of brain injuries.”

So, does memory training stave off cognitive ageing? “I would put it differently,” explains Bittmann.

“Memory training lets you apply strategies to combat the problems caused by mental ageing.”

To do this, the coaches at the SVGT rely heavily on images and associations, just like mnemonists. However, the head of the association emphasises that memory is just one piece of the puzzle: “To maintain an alert mind, you have to go through the world with curiosity and take on new things, no matter your age.”

A healthy lifestyle, first and foremost

Chief neuropsychologist at the Leenards Memory Centre at Lausanne University Hospital, Andrea Brioschi Guevara also emphasises the important role stimulation plays in maintaining good cognitive function as a result of cerebral plasticity. Many studies have shown the latter is strongly associated with cognitive reserve, or the collection of knowledge and cognitive gains you accumulate throughout your life. As a result, we can say that reading, studying and practising cultural activities “as well as exercising and having regular and enjoyable social interactions” help delay cognitive ageing. Conversely, research into cognitive training has not yielded a definitive answer in and of itself. “This training must be part of a more comprehensive approach aimed at adopting the healthiest lifestyle possible.” In this context, Andrea Brioschi Guevara points out the benefits of a good diet – based on the Mediterranean diet, if possible – and high-quality sleep.

“This isn’t just good advice for seniors. Researchers have noted that if you ask a teenager to memorise a list of words at 9:00 p.m. and have him or her recite the words again at 9:00 a.m., the child’s performance is better than if he or she memorises the list at 9:00 a.m. and is tested at 9:00 p.m.” Indeed, sleep “makes it possible to consolidate what was learned and clean out your cells”. Physical exercise has the same effect. “I think a great thing you can do for elderly people who live alone is to encourage them to get a dog. That way, they will have to go for walks, run errands and keep up a rhythm. Plus, they’ll also be able to meet other people!”



Multiple memories

“I remember the time I knew what happiness was/Let the memor(ies) live again” – those are the lyrics of Barbara Streisand’s famous 1981 song. In fact, there are several types of memory. The five most well-known types are:

Working memory

This is a short-term form of memory that lets you retain and use information for the time it takes to perform a task, such as dial a phone number.

Perceptive memory

Also known as sensory memory, this type lets you remember smells, sounds, places, etc.

Procedural memory

This lets you remember how to do things (drive, eat, etc.).

Semantic memory

This memory concerns definitive knowledge (capital of a country, number of months in a year, etc.).

Episodic memory

Also called autobiographical memory, this type of memory has to do with personal memories (family vacations, first break-up, etc.).