Remember the last time you lost your cellphone or keys? Chances are you solved the mystery by retracing your steps, mentally going over where you’d been in the last few hours.
But next time, you just may want to take a few actual steps backward to jumpstart your memory.
I just came across some fascinating research that supports this method for jogging one’s memory. Published in the journal Cognition, the study1 shows that people who walk backwards perform better in memory tests than those who walk forward or sit still.
Is this going to be the new secret for finding where you left your keys? Let’s take a look. . .
After a series of six experiments, the scientists deduced that thinking “back” or thinking “backward” to the past can improve our memory of what we experienced there. Kind of like rewinding the tape on an old-fashioned tape recorder or VCR.
The study’s lead author, AleksndarAksentijevic, dubbed the observed effect of “motion-induced mental time travel” on memory as “Mnemonic Time Travel Effect.” He admits that the research on this phenomenon is in its early stages, but he and fellow researchers believe it may lead to possible applications for treating the elderly and people with dementia.
Backward Motion Testing
Researchers asked 114 volunteers to watch a video in which a woman had her purse stolen. Then they were asked 20 questions based on what they could remember from the video.
Participants were divided into groups – some were directed to walk forwards or backwards 30 feet, while a control group stood in place. Remarkably, it was found that the backward-walking group got two more answers correct, on average, than did the forward-walkers and non-walkers.
Not satisfied with just one round of testing, the University of Roehampton scientists conducted five more variations of the experiment, including recall of words and pictures.
They found that people who moved backward, thought about moving backward or simply watched a video showing reverse motion excelled in recall compared to forward-walkers and non-walkers. Backward participants enjoyed a ten-minute boost of enhanced recall.
Unravelling the Mystery
Dr. Daniel Schacter,2 Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, weighed in on the findings. He suggests it’s possible that we associate going backward with the past, and somehow this triggers recall.
“We know it can’t have anything to do with how they’ve encoded the information,” Dr. Schacter says. “But I found the results intriguing.”
It remains a mystery because, after all, participants weren’t walking backward when they originally stored the memories tested in the study.
The study’s findings may represent a new twist on a technique used by crime scene interviewers. They mentally walk a person through an event forward and backward. Perhaps literally walking backward can provide similar benefits. But it will take further study to be sure.
More Scientific Support
Besides boosting memory, walking backward may help you face a challenge, according to a Dutch study.3
“Whenever you encounter a difficult situation, stepping backward may boost your capability to deal with it effectively,” says lead author Severine Koch, PhD.
Dr. Koch and her team were interested in the effects that “approach” movements, like moving toward something, and “avoidance” movements, such as backing away from something, have on cognitive function.
Thirty-eight college students took word tests in which they read the word for a color – “blue,” for example – that was sometimes displayed in matching ink (like “blue” written in blue ink). Other times the color word was shown in a different color (like “blue” written in red ink).
When the test was easy, reaction times for correct answers were the same whether students walked forward, backward, or sideways. However, when the test was hard, reaction times for correct answers were quickest while moving backward.
Based on these findings, Dr. Koch and her colleagues write that “backward locomotion appears to be a very powerful trigger to mobilize cognitive resource.”
Not Sure Why
It’s not clear why backward motion, real or imagined, should improve memory or sharpen brain power. I plan to watch out for additional study on this fascinating topic.
Meanwhile, I may try taking a few steps back. Maybe it will help my memory and cognition.
Experts say walking backward not only burns more calories, but also improves your balance, your sense of hearing, and your peripheral vision. Just make sure you don’t run into something!
- Aksentijevic, Aleksandar, K. R. Brandt, E. Tsakanikos, and M. J. A. Thorpe. “It Takes Me Back: The Mnemonic Time Travel Effect.” Cognition. 2019 January. 182:242-50. Epub 2018 October 24.