Researchers identify strange, simple trick to improve your memory

By Melissa Sammy, MDLinx
Published October 11, 2019

Key Takeaways

We all know that walking does the body good. Time and again, researchers have shown the plethora of health benefits that this simple exercise can offer in terms of weight management and cardiovascular health, as well as libido and pain relief. But did you know that walking can also be good for the brain? In a recent study published in Cognition, UK researchers found that people who walked in reverse demonstrated better short-term memory recall than those who walked forward or sat still.

“The results demonstrated for the first time that motion-induced past-directed mental time travel improved mnemonic performance for different types of information. We have named this a ‘mnemonic time-travel effect,’” said lead author Aleksandar Aksentijevic, PhD, Department of Psychology, Centre for Research in Cognition, Emotion and Interaction, University of Roehampton, London, United Kingdom.

In this study, the researchers conducted six experiments to determine whether backward movement would spur cognitive recall relative to forward movement or no movement. Study participants (n = 114) were shown a video of a staged crime (experiments 1, 3, and 5), a word list (experiments 2 and 4), and a set of pictures (experiment 6). They were then directed to walk forward or in reverse, sit still, watch a video simulating forward or backward motion, or imagine walking forward or in reverse. Afterward, they answered questions regarding the video or were asked to recall certain words or image details.

Overall, compared with sitting still, reverse movement—whether real or imaginary—improved mnemonic performance with respect to eyewitness information, word recall, and picture recall among study participants.

Specifically, in five of the six experiments, cognitive recall following reverse motion was superior to recall following forward movement. For instance, in the staged crime experiment, participants watched a video of a woman sitting in a park who has her bag stolen. When the investigators tested participants’ ability to correctly answer 20 questions about the simulated crime, they found that those who walked backward were significantly more likely to answer more questions correctly—irrespective of age or other factors. Of note, however, this boost in memory lasted for about 10 minutes, on average, once study participants stopped moving.

Although there isn’t a well-developed explanation behind the mechanism for how all this works, one theory posits that the human brain somehow systematizes time and memory spatially; therefore, experiencing events in unusual spatial circumstances may result in memories being stored differently.

“It's a partial vindication of this idea that time is really expressed via space,” noted Dr. Aksentijevic.

Daniel L. Schacter, PhD, William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor, Department of Psychology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, commented on the study findings, stating: “We know it can't have anything to do with how they’ve encoded the information. But I found the results intriguing.”

He went on to say that backward motion could someday be added to existing techniques to boost memory recall, and may be especially helpful for eyewitness interviews following a crime. He cautioned, however, that “it's really too early to say whether there would be practical applications.”

Richard Allen, PhD, associate professor, School of Psychology, University of Leeds, United Kingdom, echoed this sentiment, stating that the results are interesting and may offer ways to improve cognitive function, but that they need to be “clearly replicated by other research groups before we can start to be confident about this effect and its interpretation.”

Dr. Aksentijevic, however, is hopeful that further investigation of this research will materialize into a tangible benefit in the near future: “I am sure that some of this work could be useful in helping people remember things, but how is a question for more research.”

So, the next time you’ve misplaced your script pad or stethoscope, try retracing your footsteps—literally.

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