Most of us wish we had better memories. If only we didn’t get to the shop, knowing we must buy three things, but only remembering two. If only we didn’t go upstairs, only to forget why we went up there. If only we could read information and take it all in easily, instead of it disappearing quickly from our minds.
There are plenty of tried and trusted memory techniques, some of which have been around for decades – such as the use of the mnemonics and memory places. But what are scientists looking at now? More research will be needed before we can be certain of the best ways of putting these in practice, but what can the newest research tell us about the kinds of techniques we might see more of in the future?
1) Walk backwards
We might think of time and space as very different things, but even in the way we talk there is more crossover than we might realise. We put events “behind us”. We “look forward” to the weekend. The exact way we do it varies with culture, but in the Western world most of us think of the future as stretching out in space in front of us while the past stretches out behind us.
Researchers at the University of Roehampton decided to exploit this link in our minds between time and space to find a way to help us to remember events better.
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They showed people a list of words, a set of pictures or a staged video of a woman’s handbag being stolen. The people were instructed to walk either forwards or backwards 10m (33ft) across a room in time with a ticking metronome. When they were tested afterwards on their memory for the video, the words and the pictures, in each test the backwards-walkers remembered more.
It was as though walking backwards in space encouraged their mind to go back in time and the result was that they could access their memories more easily.
It even worked when they just imagined going backwards, rather than physically doing it. This 2018 research fits in with some intriguing research done with rats in 2006. When rats learn to navigate their way around a maze, neurons called place cells fire at each location. The researchers found that as the rats pause in a maze, the neurons associated with each location they’ve learned along the route, fire in reverse order. So going backwards in their minds helps them to remember the correct route.