Memory Lane

This morning’s Washington Post had an interesting article about the gradual disappearance of what was once considered to be a key skill for a professional restaurant waiter: the ability to accurately remember diners’ orders without writing them down.  The article mentions a number of reasons for the change, including more customers with special requests due to real or imagined food allergies, and food enthusiasts who have special requests stemming from reading and watching too much “gastro-porn” in magazines and on the Food Network.

All of that is moderately amusing,  but what is more interesting is that some research indicates that old-school waiters are not successful because they started out with better memories than others, but because their work improved their memories:

Several recent studies — including one published last year in the journal Behavioral Neurology that tested the memories of veteran cafe waiters in Buenos Aires — found that the servers’ constant practice actually expands the brain’s memory function.

For a long time, the consensus view was that there was very limited potential for structural or functional development in the adult brain; this result seems to indicate otherwise.  It’s consistent with a study done a number of years ago on London taxi drivers, who, in order to be licenced, have to pass an extremely comprehensive test of their memory of London’s street plan (called “The Knowledge”).  Having lived in London for a number of years, I can testify both that the street layout is incredibly complex, and that the average taxi driver has an astonishingly detailed grasp of where everything is.

(When I moved to London, I made a preliminary scouting trip to find a place to live.  Then I returned with my belongings, and got a cab at Heathrow airport.  I gave the driver my address. He said, “Let’s see, that’s off Willoughby Road, isn’t it?”  I said, “That’s right”, and we were off.  Looking at the map later, I am sure there was no more direct route than the one the driver took.  This is especially impressive because Willoughby Road is not a major thoroughfare, but a residential street in the Hampstead area that is only a few hundred yards long.)

The researchers, from University College London, found that studying for The Knowledge and driving a cab produced observable physical changes in the cabbies’ brains, especially in the hippocampus, whose function is tied to memory formation.

The scientists also found part of the hippocampus grew larger as the taxi drivers spent more time in the job. “There seems to be a definite relationship between the navigating they do as a taxi driver and the brain changes,” said Dr Eleanor Maguire, who led the research team.

These results are interesting because they are somewhat at odds with the conventional wisdom, and seem to indicate that there is a fair degree of plasticity even in the adult brain.  This in turn could be good news for the development of new treatments for brain injuries and other neurological problems.

I can’t close without mentioning London taxi driver.David Cohen, who had the best observation on the whole business:

: “I never noticed part of my brain growing – it makes you wonder what happened to the rest of it.”


One Response to Memory Lane

  1. Martin says:

    Hello, Rich.

    This is exactly right. Around 1998 a scientist called Fred Gage demonstrated that, contrary to popular belief, the adult human brain generates thousands of new nerve cells every day. This was a tremendous discovery that followed from a huge body of good science pointing to the same conclusion that had been marginalized because it didn’t fit the scientific norm.

    As an example of just how far this can go for the average person, in 2008 scientists from the Universities of Michigan and Bern showed that intensive brain training increases intelligence.

    PS. Anyone interested about this training can learn more at

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