This simple brain hack may help boost memory and improve your mental health

This simple brain hack may help boost memory and improve your mental health

Researchers from Duke University have revealed a simple ” brain hack ” that has the potential to boost both your memory, but also your mental health.

They discovered this in a rather unusual way – by getting more than 400 people to play at being art thieves for the day.

The team found that people who pretended to be scouting a virtual art museum as if planning for an upcoming heist were much better at remembering the paintings they saw than those imagining themself mid-heist, collecting art supermarket-sweep-style.

According to the team, exploiting the effects of these subtle differences in motivation could be applied to help people better tackle real-world challenges.

For example, they said, it could be used to encourage people to get vaccinated , to help prompt actions to tackle climate change – and even to treat psychiatric disorders.

In the study, cognitive neuroscientist Dr Alyssa Sinclair of Duke University in North Carolina and her colleagues recruited 420 adults to pretend to be art thieves for the day.

Each participant was randomly assigned to one of two groups that received different backstories for the roleplaying exercise.

Dr Sinclair explained: “For the urgent group, we told them – ‘You’re a master thief, you’re doing the heist right now. Steal as much as you can!’

“Whereas for the curious group, we told them they were a thief who’s scouting the museum to plan a future heist.”

After being assigned their backstory, each volunteer played the exact same computer game, in which they explored a simplified digital representation of an art museum.

This museum had four colored doors – to represent different rooms – and clicking on each of these revealed one of the paintings from that room, displayed along with its value.

Some of the rooms, the researchers explained, had been programmed to hold more valuable collections of art, discovering pieces from which secured the player a real financial bonus.

The next day, each participant was asked to take a pop quiz to see how well they could recognize the paintings they had seen from a set of 175 works – 100 of which were in the virtual museum the day before, and 75 of which were brand new.

If participants reported that the painting was familiar, then they were also asked to recall how much it had been said to be worth.

Dr Sinclair said: “The curious group participants who imagined planning a heist had a better memory the next day.

“They correctly recognized more paintings. They remembered how much each painting was worth. And reward boosted memory, so valuable paintings were more likely to be remembered.

“But we didn’t see that in the urgent group participants who imagined executing the heist.”

Instead, volunteers in the urgent group were found to have proven better at figuring out which of the four doors in the virtual museum lead to more expensive pieces.

Accordingly, they succeeded in securing more money – $230 more than in the curious participants’ collection.

Neither of the two strategies – curious versus urgent – are necessarily better, the team noted.

Paper co-author Dr Alison Adcock – a neurobiologist at Duke’s Institute for Brain Sizes – explained: “It’s valuable to learn which mode is adaptive in a given moment and use it strategically.”

Urgency, for example, might well be the best option when faced with many a short-term problem.

Dr Sinclair said: “If you’re on a hike and there’s a bear, you don’t want to be thinking about long-term planning. You need to focus on getting out of there right now!”

Cultivating an urgent mindset might also be useful for less extreme situations that also require short-term focus – such as in getting an important vaccination.

In contrast, stressing people out is likely going to be less effective if the goal is to encourage memory or behaviors beyond the short-term.

Dr Sinclair explained: “Sometimes you want to motivate people to seek information and remember it in the future, which might have longer-term consequences for lifestyle changes.”Maybe for that, you need to put them in a curious mode so that they can actually retain that information.”With their initial study complete, the researchers are now investigating how urgency and curiosity activate different parts of the brain.Their preliminary findings suggest that the amygdala – an almond-shaped region of the brain involved in emotional processing – is responsible for getting us into “urgent mode” and allowing us to form focussed, efficient short-term memories.In contrast, curious exploration appears to be facilitated by the hippocampus, based on the activity of the neurochemical dopamine there, helping us to form detailed long-term memories.These findings, Dr Adcock noted, might benefit the patients she sees in her role as a psychiatrist.She explained: “Most of adult psychotherapy is about how we encourage flexibility, like with curious mode. But it’s much harder for people to do, since we spend a lot of our adult lives in an urgency mode.”Thought experiments may help people to develop “psychological maneuvers” – cures that act similarly to pharmaceuticals – to better handle certain situations.Dr Aldcock concluded: “For me, the ultimate goal would be to teach people to do this for themselves. That’s empowering.”The full findings of the study were published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences .


Spread the love

Leave a Reply

Nature Knows Nootropics