Article | Published:

Routes to remembering: the brains behind superior memory


Why do some people have superior memory capabilities? We addressed this age-old question by examining individuals renowned for outstanding memory feats in forums such as the World Memory Championships. Using neuropsychological measures, as well as structural and functional brain imaging, we found that superior memory was not driven by exceptional intellectual ability or structural brain differences. Rather, we found that superior memorizers used a spatial learning strategy, engaging brain regions such as the hippocampus that are critical for memory and for spatial memory in particular. These results illustrate how functional neuroimaging might prove valuable in delineating the neural substrates of mnemonic techniques, which could broaden the scope for memory improvement in the general population and the memory-impaired.

Access optionsAccess options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.


  1. 1

    Yates, F.A. The Art of Memory (Pimlico, London, 1966).

  2. 2

    Luria, A.R. The Mind of a Mnemonist (Penguin, Harmondsworth, UK, 1975).

  3. 3

    Wilding, J. & Valentine, E. Superior Memory (Psychology Press, Hove, UK, 1997).

  4. 4

    Brown, E. & Deffenbacher, K. Forgotten mnemonists. J. Hist. Behav. Sci. 11, 342–349 (1975).

  5. 5

    Neisser, U. Memory Observed: Remembering in Natural Contexts 377–381 (Freeman, San Francisco, 1982).

  6. 6

    Amidzic, O., Riehle, H.J., Fehr, T., Wienbruch, C. & Elbert, T. Pattern of focal y-bursts in chess players. Nature 412, 603 (2001).

  7. 7

    Presenti, M. et al. Mental calculation in a prodigy is sustained by right prefrontal and medial temporal areas. Nat. Neurosci. 4, 103–107 (2001).

  8. 8

    Gauthier, I., Skudlarski, P., Gore, J.C. & Anderson, A.W. Expertise for cars and birds recruits brain areas involved in face recognition. Nat. Neurosci. 3, 191–197 (2000).

  9. 9

    Butcher, J. O'Brien—master mnemonist. The Lancet 356, 836 (2000).

  10. 10

    Maguire, E.A. et al. Navigation-related structural change in the hippocampi of taxi drivers. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 97, 4398–4403 (2000).

  11. 11

    Schlaug, G., Jancke, L., Huang, Y. & Steinmetz, H. In vivo evidence of structural brain asymmetry in musicians. Science 267, 699–701 (1995).

  12. 12

    Ashburner, J. & Friston, K.J. Voxel-based morphometry—the methods. Neuroimage 11, 805–821 (2000).

  13. 13

    Gadian, D.G. et al. Developmental amnesia associated with early hypoxic-ischemic injury. Brain 123, 499–507 (2000).

  14. 14

    Good, C.D. et al. Cerebral asymmetry and the effects of sex and handedness on brain structure: a voxel based morphometric analysis of 465 normal adult human brains. Neuroimage 14, 685–700 (2001).

  15. 15

    Bentley, W.A. & Humphreys, W.J. Snow Crystals (Dover, New York, 1962).

  16. 16

    Tomaiuolo, F. et al. Morphology, morphometry and probability mapping of the pars opercularis of the inferior frontal gyrus: an in vivo MRI analysis. Eur. J. Neurosci. 11, 3033–3046 (1999).

  17. 17

    Maguire, E.A. et al. Knowing where, and getting there: a human navigation network. Science 280, 921–924 (1998).

  18. 18

    Burgess, N., Maguire, E.A. & O'Keefe, J. The human hippocampus and spatial and episodic memory. Neuron 35, 625–641 (2002).

  19. 19

    O'Keefe, J. & Nadel, L. The Hippocampus as a Cognitive Map (Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford, 1978).

  20. 20

    Maguire, E.A. The retrosplenial contribution to human navigation: a review of lesion and neuroimaging findings. Scand. J. Psychol. 42, 225–238 (2001).

  21. 21

    Bellezza, F.S. Mnemonic devices: classification, characteristics and criteria. Rev. Educ. Res. 51, 247–275 (1981).

  22. 22

    Bower, G.H. Analysis of a mnemonic device. Am. Scientist 58, 496–510 (1970).

  23. 23

    Toni, I. & Passingham, R.E. Prefrontal-basal ganglia pathways are involved in the learning of arbitrary visuomotor associations: a PET study. Exp. Brain Res. 127, 19–32 (1999).

  24. 24

    Dolan, R.J. & Fletcher, P.C. Dissociating prefrontal and hippocampal function in episodic memory encoding. Nature 388, 582–585 (1997).

  25. 25

    Chase, W.G. & Ericsson, K.A. Skill and working memory. in The Psychology of Learning and Motivation Vol. 16 (ed. Bower, G.H.) 1–58 (Academic, New York, 1982).

  26. 26

    Roediger, H.L. The effectiveness of four mnemonics in ordering recall. J. Exp. Psych. Hum. Learn. Mem. 6, 558–567 (1980).

  27. 27

    Verhaeghen, P. & Marcoen, A. On the mechanisms of plasticity in young and older adults after instruction in the method of loci: evidence for an amplification model. Psychol. Aging 11, 164–178 (1996).

  28. 28

    Bender, B.G. & Levin, J.R. Pictures, imagery, and retarded children's prose learning. J. Educ. Psych. 70, 583–588 (1978).

  29. 29

    Richardson, J.T.E. The efficacy of imagery mnemonics in memory remediation. Neuropsychologia 33, 1345–1357 (1995).

  30. 30

    Wilson, B.A. Memory rehabilitation. in Neuropsychology of Memory 3rd edn. (eds. Squire, L.R. & Schacter, D.L.) 263–272 (Guilford Press, New York, 2002).

  31. 31

    Deichmann, R., Good, C.D., Josephs, O., Ashburner, J. & Turner, R. Optimization of 3D MP-RAGE sequences for structural brain imaging. Neuroimage 12, 112–127 (2000).

  32. 32

    Maguire, E.A., Vargha-Khadem, F. & Mishkin, M. The effects of bilateral hippocampal damage on fMRI regional activations and interactions during memory retrieval. Brain 124, 1156–1170 (2001).

  33. 33

    Oldfield, R.C. The assessment and analysis of handedness: the Edinburgh Inventory. Neuropsychologia 9, 97–113 (1971).

  34. 34

    Nelson, H.E. & Wilson, J.R. National Adult Reading Test (NART) 2nd edn. (Berkshire, Windsor, UK, 1991).

  35. 35

    Wechsler Abbreviated Scale of Intelligence (WASI). (The Psychological Corporation, San Antonio, Texas, 1999).

  36. 36

    Rey, A. L'examen psychologique dans les cas d'encephalopathy. Archives de Psychologie 28, 286–340 (1942).

  37. 37

    Osterrieth, P.A. Le test de copie d'une figure complexe. Archives de Psychologie 30, 206–356 (1944).

  38. 38

    Coughlan, A. & Hollows, S.E. Adult Memory and Information Processing Battery (AMIPB). Psychology Department, St. James Hospital, Leeds, UK (1985).

  39. 39

    Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale – Revised (British Adaptation) (WAIS-R). (The Psychological Corporation, San Antonio, Texas, 1986).

  40. 40

    Bennett-Levy, J., Polkey, C.E. & Powell, G. Self-report of memory skills after temporal lobectomy: the effect of clinical variables. Cortex 16, 543–557 (1980).

  41. 41

    McMillan, T.M. Investigation of everyday memory in normal subjects using the Subjective Memory Questionnaire (SMQ). Cortex 20, 333–347 (1984).

Download references


This work was supported by the Wellcome Trust and the University of London Central Research Fund. We thank D. Passingham, U. Noppeney, C. Good, T. Singer, J. Winston and P. Abbott for assistance and advice. We are also grateful for the interest and participation of all the superior memorizers and control volunteers.

Author information

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Correspondence to Eleanor A. Maguire.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Further reading

Figure 1: Examples of the stimuli.
Figure 2: Graphic representation of the structure of a sample learning and control trial during scanning (see Methods for details).
Figure 3: Functional MRI results showing differences between the SMs and controls.