You’ve got to hang out in the “right” tree to remember more

foraging in the memory treeYou know you’ve committed a particular fact to memory, but try as you might, you can’t access that pesky fact.

Ever wondered how your brain hunts down specific memories ?

This week’s Neurotechnology Tip provides a little insight into how your brain hunts down memories, hopefully armed with this info, you can increase the odds of finding a “missing” fact.

We are a little bird “brained”

Not in terms of size – the brain of a bird is tiny weany, so they aren’t really wired for BIG thinking. But they do know how to find things, especially edible things.

So what is a birds modus operandi for dinner ?

  1. Eyeball the terrain – for possibilities.
  2. Swing down to the tree loaded with possibilities.
  3. Start eating.
  4. Stay in that tree, as long as you’re still finding tasty morsels.
  5. Once that tree is no longer able to provide delicious bites, move on.
  6.  Beginning again at step 1 – eyeball the terrain for possibilities.

Lessons from the birds ?

Scientists from the University of Warwick, speculated that humans follow the same strategy to locate memories.

Metaphorically speaking, we fly over our memories looking for possibilities too. Once we locate a potentially good spot, we bring out the ladder and climb the tree, and begin poking around to find the ones we are looking for.

Hitting the jackpot i.e. locating the memory, is highly dependent on climbing the right tree, but it also depends on staying in the tree, for just the right amount of time.

Tree climbing in practice

The researchers tested the tree climbing idea, on a bunch of volunteers.

The volunteers were asked to name as many animals as they could in three minutes. The researches “studied” how people generated their list, by looking at patterns and timing.

The volunteers “flew” from tree to tree.

  • First tree most people visited was “household pets”….listing dog, cat, hamster etc.
  • When they exhausted this list, they moved on to another tree, such as BIG CATS. Adding lion, tiger, jaguar etc to the list.

The lists generated came in bursts of “related” animals.

Change trees

The people who performed well i.e. who generated big lists, where people who knew when to move to the next tree.

People who climbed a tree and then camped out in the tree for an extended period of time – generated rather short lists, because they ran out of time.

But short lists were also a problem for those who climbed the tree, had a brief, very brief squizz around, and then hurriedly moved to the next tree.

Answering list questions

Being asked to list things, is a popular way of testing how much you know.

If you already handle them like a pro, you’re probably already foraging like a magpie. If you find yourself struggling to generate LONG lists, try thinking more like a bird.

If you’ve studied, you can usually find the trees which are loaded with possibilities, the trick to maximizing your list generating capability is to make sure you don’t stay too long or flit away too soon.

Optimal Foraging in Semantic Memory Psychological Review (2012). Thomas T. Hills, Michael N. Jones, Peter M. Todd.

To wire up your brain a little each week ………………..

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Did you learn something new or do you have a different perspective ? I’d love to hear from you so post me a comment below

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