Walking backwards can boost your short-term memory

To go back in time, it might help to go backwards in space. Volunteers in a study did better in a memory test if they walked backwards before taking it – or if they simply imagined moving backwards. Aleksandar Aksentijevic at the University of Roehampton, UK, and colleagues asked 114 volunteers to watch a video in which a woman has her bag stolen by a passer-by. Ten minutes after watching the video, some of the participants were told to walk forwards or backwards 10 metres, while those in a control group stood in one place. Then they were asked 20 questions about the events in the video. The backward-walking group got two more answers correct on average than the forward-walkers and the non-walkers – a small improvement, but one that was statistically significant. A similar effect was found in five variations of the experiment. One of them involved a similar procedure, but tested how many words the volunteers could remember from a list. In others, participants simply imagined moving forwards or backwards, or watched a video filmed on a train, which created the impression of moving forwards or backwards.

Time is space

We are all used to thinking about time as a space that we move through, and using the language of spatial movement to talk about time. This study and others hint that the connection between time and space is more than a convenient analogy – it is intrinsic to the way the past is conceptualised in our minds. “It’s a partial vindication of this idea that time is really expressed via space,” says Aksentijevic. Still, it’s far from clear why motion, real or imagined, should improve our access to memories. Aksentijevic hopes further research will shed light on this – as well as how we might use the effect to our advantage. “I am sure that some of this work could be useful in helping people remember things, but how is a question for more research,” he says. Richard Allen at the University of Leeds, UK, says the results are interesting, and might offer ways to improve memory function. “However, I think we need to see the results clearly replicated by other research groups before we can start to be confident about this effect and its interpretation,” he says.

New Scientist, 16 November 2018 ; http://www.newscientist.com/