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Retired Canadian Astronaut & Author
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How the Ancient 'Method of Loci' Can Improve Your Long-Term Memory

A study finds that just 30 minutes of memory training per day, for 40 days, can reorganize your brain connectivity.

The temporal lobe (orange) is involved with smell and sound, the processing of speech and vision, and plays a key role in the formation of long-term memory.

Life would be a lot sweeter if you were a memory athlete. From the small details like where you put your keys, to the more important matters like PIN codes, trivia nights, and work-specific information recall, you would be set for success. Most of us however, are not wired that way. But don't be discouraged: thanks to neuroplasticity, anyone can transcend their fallible memory. What you're born with isn't what you're stuck with. 

There are a few relatively simple things a person can do to help improve their memory function. First up, the basics: the foundation of good memory is good health. Eating and sleeping right will lead to optimal brain function, the flow-on effect of which is a better memory.

Then there are more deliberate approaches like practicing mnemonics. A mnemonic device is a trick designed to make remembering things easier. So instead of remembering to buy eggs, rice, apples and dog food, it might be easier to think of READ, which stands for rice, eggs, apples, and dog food. This is the acrostic method.

Another more complicated mnemonic technique is called a mind palace, where you base a memory around visual images. Let's use the same shopping list as an example. Instead of focusing on the word ‘rice,’ this technique works by focusing on the image of rice thrown on the ground in a yard. For eggs, picture a hen pecking at the rice, followed by a nearby tree of apple blossoms, the petals falling around the hen, falling on a sleeping dog. Once the interconnected scene is created it’s a simple visual to ease your way around the halls of the grocery store with no list needed.

This technique is more formally called 'method of loci', and is believed to have been invented by the Greek poet Simonides of Ceos, who developed his muscular memory about 2,500 years ago, in really unfortunate circumstances. The roof of a banquet hall, full of people, collapsed and crushed many of them beyond recognition. Simonides had to recall where people had been sitting along the tables to confirm their deaths — hence, method of location.

The original Sherlock Holmes supposedly used the method of loci, although Sir Arthur Conan Doyle referred to it as a ‘brain attic’, as The Smithsonian reports. The great detective imagined an attic, and filled it with the things that he knew. Here in the attic, Holmes is able to search around and find anything that he might deem useful. Of course, for the updated BBC series, the ‘attic’ mentioned in the original literature was updated to a larger, grander space befitting the name of ‘mind palace.’ It includes all the places Holmes might need to remember later, including the morgue where he discussed how to survive being shot in the chest. That one came in handy.

A recent study published in Neuron has unearthed some interesting insights about the brains of competitive memorizers. The researchers invited 23 of the world's top 50 memory athletes to have their brains scanned in rest states, and while performing memory tests, and matched each champion to a control participant. "Control participants were matched for age, sex, handedness, smoking status, and IQ. Where relevant, to ensure matching with the generally high intellectual level of the memory athletes, control participants were recruited among gifted students of academic foundations and members of the high-IQ society Mensa," the study authors explain.

Anatomically, the scans showed there was no difference in brain structure or region size between the groups. Where the difference was observed was in connectivity. And what's more, after they gave the 'naive' control group training in the method of loci, their neural connectivity began to look more like that of the pros:

This superior memory connectivity profile can be instilled in naive controls by a 6-week period of mnemonic training in the method of loci... The improved memory observed after mnemonic training persists for as long as 4 months after training concludes. Of note, the training-induced similarity with the superior memory connectivity profile can be observed both during task-free baseline resting state and for background brain connectivity during active encoding.  

How should we phrase this articulately: Holy guacamole. Training in method of loci can physically change the way a person remembers. The method connects brain regions, and according to lead author Martin Dresler, this includes “regions critical for visuospatial memory and navigation, such as retrosplenial and hippocampal areas.” By training in this way, the brain can shape new pathways of recall, so that the act of remembering has multiple, speedy avenues on which to travel. The training in this study consisted of 30 minutes per day, for 40 days at home using a web-based training platform called Memocamp.

Learn about how to use the method of loci with the Med School Insiders:

How accountability at work can transform your organization

If you don't practice accountability at work you're letting the formula for success slip right through your hands.

  • What is accountability? It's a tool for improving performance and, once its potential is thoroughly understood, it can be leveraged at scale in any team or organization.
  • In this lesson for leaders, managers, and individuals, Shideh Sedgh Bina, a founding partner of Insigniam and the editor-in-chief of IQ Insigniam Quarterly, explains why it is so crucial to success.
  • Learn to recognize the mindset of accountable versus unaccountable people, then use Shideh's guided exercise as a template for your next post-project accountability analysis—whether that project was a success or it fell short, it's equally important to do the reckoning.

What if Middle-earth was in Pakistan?

Iranian Tolkien scholar finds intriguing parallels between subcontinental geography and famous map of Middle-earth

Could this former river island in the Indus have inspired Tolkien to create Cair Andros, the ship-shaped island in the Anduin river?

Image: Mohammad Reza Kamali, reproduced with kind permission
Strange Maps
  • J.R.R. Tolkien himself hinted that his stories are set in a really ancient version of Europe.
  • But a fantasy realm can be inspired by a variety of places; and perhaps so is Tolkien's world.
  • These intriguing similarities with Asian topography show that it may be time to 'decolonise' Middle-earth.
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Giant whale sharks have teeth on their eyeballs

The ocean's largest shark relies on vision more than previously believed.

An eight-metre-long Whale shark swims with other fish at the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium on February 26, 2010 in Motobu, Okinawa, Japan.

Photo by Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • Japanese researchers discovered that the whale shark has "tiny teeth"—dermal denticles—protecting its eyes from abrasion.
  • They also found the shark is able to retract its eyeball into the eye socket.
  • Their research confirms that this giant fish relies on vision more than previously believed.
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A massive star has mysteriously vanished, confusing astronomers

A gigantic star makes off during an eight-year gap in observations.

Image source: ESO/L. Calçada
Surprising Science
  • The massive star in the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy seems to have disappeared between 2011 and 2019.
  • It's likely that it erupted, but could it have collapsed into a black hole without a supernova?
  • Maybe it's still there, but much less luminous and/or covered by dust.

A "very massive star" in the Kinman Dwarf galaxy caught the attention of astronomers in the early years of the 2000s: It seemed to be reaching a late-ish chapter in its life story and offered a rare chance to observe the death of a large star in a region low in metallicity. However, by the time scientists had the chance to turn the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Paranal, Chile back around to it in 2019 — it's not a slow-turner, just an in-demand device — it was utterly gone without a trace. But how?

The two leading theories about what happened are that either it's still there, still erupting its way through its death throes, with less luminosity and perhaps obscured by dust, or it just up and collapsed into a black hole without going through a supernova stage. "If true, this would be the first direct detection of such a monster star ending its life in this manner," says Andrew Allan of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, leader of the observation team whose study is published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

So, em...

Between astronomers' last look in 2011 and 2019 is a large enough interval of time for something to happen. Not that 2001 (when it was first observed) or 2019 have much meaning, since we're always watching the past out there and the Kinman Dwarf Galaxy is 75 million light years away. We often think of cosmic events as slow-moving phenomena because so often their follow-on effects are massive and unfold to us over time. But things happen just as fast big as small. The number of things that happened in the first 10 millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, for example, is insane.

In any event, the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is far way, too far for astronomers to directly observe its stars. Their presence can be inferred from spectroscopic signatures — specifically, PHL 293B between 2001 and 2011 consistently featured strong signatures of hydrogen that indicated the presence of a massive "luminous blue variable" (LBV) star about 2.5 times more brilliant than our Sun. Astronomers suspect that some very large stars may spend their final years as LBVs.

Though LBVs are known to experience radical shifts in spectra and brightness, they reliably leave specific traces that help confirm their ongoing presence. In 2019 the hydrogen signatures, and such traces, were gone. Allan says, "It would be highly unusual for such a massive star to disappear without producing a bright supernova explosion."

The Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is one of the most metal-poor galaxies known. Explosive, massive, Wolf-Rayet stars are seldom seen in such environments — NASA refers to such stars as those that "live fast, die hard." Red supergiants are also rare to low Z environments. The now-missing star was looked to as a rare opportunity to observe a massive star's late stages in such an environment.

Celestial sleuthing

In August 2019, the team pointed the four eight-meter telescopes of ESO's ESPRESSO array simultaneously toward the LBV's former location: nothing. They also gave the VLT's X-shooter instrument a shot a few months later: also nothing.

Still pursuing the missing star, the scientists acquired access to older data for comparison to what they already felt they knew. "The ESO Science Archive Facility enabled us to find and use data of the same object obtained in 2002 and 2009," says Andrea Mehner, an ESO staff member who worked on the study. "The comparison of the 2002 high-resolution UVES spectra with our observations obtained in 2019 with ESO's newest high-resolution spectrograph ESPRESSO was especially revealing, from both an astronomical and an instrumentation point of view."

Examination of this data suggested that the LBV may have indeed been winding up to a grand final sometime after 2011.

Team member Jose Groh, also of Trinity College, says "We may have detected one of the most massive stars of the local Universe going gently into the night. Our discovery would not have been made without using the powerful ESO 8-meter telescopes, their unique instrumentation, and the prompt access to those capabilities following the recent agreement of Ireland to join ESO."

Combining the 2019 data with contemporaneous Hubble Space Telescope (HST) imagery leaves the authors of the reports with the sense that "the LBV was in an eruptive state at least between 2001 and 2011, which then ended, and may have been followed by a collapse into a massive BH without the production of an SN. This scenario is consistent with the available HST and ground-based photometry."


A star collapsing into a black hole without a supernova would be a rare event, and that argues against the idea. The paper also notes that we may simply have missed the star's supernova during the eight-year observation gap.

LBVs are known to be highly unstable, so the star dropping to a state of less luminosity or producing a dust cover would be much more in the realm of expected behavior.

Says the paper: "A combination of a slightly reduced luminosity and a thick dusty shell could result in the star being obscured. While the lack of variability between the 2009 and 2019 near-infrared continuum from our X-shooter spectra eliminates the possibility of formation of hot dust (⪆1500 K), mid-infrared observations are necessary to rule out a slowly expanding cooler dust shell."

The authors of the report are pretty confident the star experienced a dramatic eruption after 2011. Beyond that, though:

"Based on our observations and models, we suggest that PHL 293B hosted an LBV with an eruption that ended sometime after 2011. This could have been followed by
(1) a surviving star or
(2) a collapse of the LBV to a BH [black hole] without the production of a bright SN, but possibly with a weak transient."

Future of Learning

Changing the way we grade students could trigger a wave of innovation

How students apply what they've learned is more important than a letter or number grade.

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