Memories are an incredibly important part of human cognition. We use memories to learn things and store information away, like people's names and faces or the grocery list. To that end, we're always looking for ways to improve our memory, be it maybe-not-so-scientific brain game apps or doses of ginkgo biloba.

The real secret, according to a new study published in the journal Neuron, may be dedicated training and mnemonic activities that trigger connections between different parts of the brain.

Researchers recruited 23 memory athletes — yes, there's such a thing, and they even have competitions — and 23 people who matched the memory athletes in terms of age, gender and IQ but didn't have the athlete's particular memory skill set. The researchers conducted brain scans of both groups and found no big differences between them. When they conducted functional MRI (fMRI) scans, however, that's when things got more interesting.

Memory uses a lot of the brain

Functional MRIs measure brain activity by tracking how much blood goes to specific portions of the brain, like when asked to recall a long list of memorized words, which is what researchers had their participants do. Some portions of the memory athletes' brains activated in unison, creating 25 connections between different parts of the brain, particularly the memory and spatial learning sections. The non-athletes' brains didn't make those connections.

Connections between those two sections of the brain shouldn't be surprising when you consider that many memory athletes use an ancient mnemonic technique called loci — or if you watch BBC's "Sherlock" or are familiar with the Hannibal Lecter novels, you've heard it called a memory palace. It's a memory technique that dates back to the ancient Greeks, when people had to remember whole speeches, stories and books without the aid of EverNote or a quick Google search.

The key behind a memory palace is remembering a building that's very familiar to you and then linking certain things you need to remember to specific places within that space. Boris Nikolai Konrad, the memory athlete and doctoral student who is a co-author on the study, used his high school home as his first memory palace.

"It would start in my room," Konrad told NPR. "The first location would be my bed, and the second one would be the shelf above my bed; then it's my desk, the computer on it, the window, the mirror and so on."

Konrad would then translate information, say his old home phone number that started with 1202, into images that spoke specifically to him. "1-2," for example, called to mind a dinosaur, so he'd picture a dinosaur sitting on his bed. "0-2" would be a sun, so he'd imagine the sun over the shelf above his bed.

Building up your memory palace

People stand in the Fontainebleau Palace in France Your memory palace does not need to be an actual palace — unless you're very familiar with one. (Photo: Takashi Images/Shutterstock)

To test the soundness of memory palaces as mnemonic technique, researchers recruited 51 college-aged men and divided them up into three groups. One group received a six-week course in memory palace training with Konrad and memory training with a computer, one group received a different kind of memory training and the final group didn't receive any kind of training. Twice over the six-week period, the participants recited a list of common words during fMRI sessions. The groups then returned after four months following training (or no training at all) to repeat the scans.

The brain activity of the participants who received that memory palace training changed the most among the three groups, and that brain activity came the closest to matching the activity observed in the memory athletes, and it persisted even after the four-month gap.

The researchers hypothesize that the effectiveness of these memory strategies may be linked to skills we've evolved over time, including visuospatial memory and navigation. With the memory palace, where you take abstract and unrelated bits of information and turn them into concrete and related information, these are patterns that our brains, specifically parts of the brain like the hippocampus, more readily process.

If you're ready to test the memory palace idea out, try it with a small grocery list first. Take the items you need on that list and instead of trying to remember them as individual items, construct a story of sorts around your journey through the house featuring those items. This example from a New York Times article is a good one:

The entryway of your house is festooned with toilet paper; your kitchen sink is full of lobsters, dancing; a bathtub-size stick of butter melts on your dining room table; your family is singing karaoke in a swimming pool of hummus in your living room; your hallway is so full of grapes you cannot avoid crushing them with each step; your stairway has a runner of lasagna noodles slippery with tomato sauce; a mooing cow is being milked in your bedroom; stalks of corn grow down from the ceiling in the spare bedroom; a crop of multicolored mushrooms blooms in your shower.

If all this seems a little silly, remember that Konrad's model had a dinosaur sitting on his bed. The vividness of the story and the images are key, so there's very little reason your memory palace can't be more along the lines of a memory fun house.

Boost your recall with a memory palace
Developed by the ancient Greeks, the memory palace or method of loci is a way to store and retain abstract information in concrete ways.