If you’re having trouble remembering where you left your keys, car, or glasses, don’t assume your memory is failing you. A study suggests that people are good at recalling not just what objects they’ve seen, but also where and when they saw them. Participants in the study were able to recall the location of over 100 items on a 7×7 grid, often choosing the correct location or one close to it.
Researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital, part of the Mass General Brigham healthcare system, have found that people possess a “spatial massive memory” (SMM) for where objects are located, and a “temporal massive memory” (TMM) for when objects were last seen. These findings, from a series of three experiments, are published in the journal Current Biology.
“People often think that their memory is terrible,” says corresponding author Jeremy Wolfe, adding, “but our results show that we can recall where and when an object appeared with good, if not perfect, precision for a large number of objects.”
“While our spatial and temporal memory for objects may not be as impressive as some birds or squirrels, who have to remember where they hid their food for the winter,” adds the author, the results of their “show that we do have massive memory for objects.”
The study, led by Wolfe and his team, involved participants viewing a number of objects placed on a 7×7 grid. Each object was briefly highlighted with a red square for two seconds. After all the images were removed, participants were tested on their ability to recall if they had seen the objects before and, if so, where they had been located on the grid.
“In some ways, this is a bit like the game of Memory,” explains Wolfe, “that many of us played as children, where we turned over a card and then tried to recall the location of a matching card that we had seen before.”
“But unlike in the children’s game, we didn’t just count the exact ‘correct’ answer. We measured how close the participant got to the previously seen image.”
During the study, participants were shown 300 different objects. Many of them were able to recall the location of over 100 objects within one cell of their true location on the grid. In a follow-up experiment, participants were shown objects one at a time and were asked to indicate on a timeline when they had seen the object. The researchers found that participants were able to correctly place 60-80% of the objects to within 10% of their actual time, a significant improvement over the 40% chance of guessing correctly.
The authors highlight that further trials are required to identify the maximum limits of huge memory or to examine other areas, such as the probable impact of gender on memory.
Wolfe says that some things are much easier to remember than others. Knowing what is easiest to remember, like pictures of objects and scenes, could help us make the most of our memories.
People have long used memory techniques involving visual imagery to store large amounts of information in their minds.
“In that sense, it’s not terribly surprising that, using our methods, we discover that we’re pretty good at remembering where objects are,” adds Wolfe.
“Our experiments show that spatial and temporal massive memories exist. Future research will define their limits.”
Image Credit: Getty
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