Forgetting things can be frustrating. But, a new study suggests there might be specific kinds of things you can do now—interesting, enjoyable things, in fact—that are associated with improved memory in later life.
The study comes to us from Canada, where Erik Wing, a postdoctoral fellow at the Rotman Research Institute of Baycrest Health Sciences, a brain research institute with scientists studying aging, brain health, and cognitive neuroscience, set out to study people who become experts in detail-oriented hobbies like birdwatching, and how their memories evolve over time.
Writing in the peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Wing and his colleagues explained earlier this year that they recruited birdwatching experts, along with control groups consisting of people who were experts in other outdoor activities, for two rounds of experiments.
In the first round, they asked people from each group to classify new birds that they had never seen before according to whatever criteria made sense to them. They found that while the control groups tended to classify new birds on the basis of superficial attributes like size or color, experts based their classifications on more detailed criteria.
"Most experts tended to group birds on the basis of specific features, such as the structure of the beak or the shape of the tail, even for bird species that they had never seen before," the institute explained in a statement.
In the second round, they tested the study participants' memory, by showing them a series of bird photographs, and then showing them a second series and asking whether they believed they had already seen the second series' group of birds within the first group.
Sure enough, those participants who had shown a propensity to group the birds on the basis of more detailed criteria, like beak structure, were also more likely to have remembered accurately which birds from the second group had also been included in the first group.
What does this mean for our memories? Well, one plausible theory is that people can train themselves over time to notice and mentally record details that make it more likely in the long run that they'll effectively remember new things.
Of course, it probably doesn't have to be birdwatching. But spending time on any detail-oriented endeavor that also involves a lot of new experiences, learning, and accumulation of data might similarly make your memory stronger longer in life—which is probably when you worry you'll need the boost the most.
In fact, one of Wing's co-authors, Asaf Gilboa, a senior scientist at the RRI and associate professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, suggests three kinds of activities that might help:
Having more years of education, more areas of interest, and more hobbies seems to reduce dementia risk and support memory in old age.
Our results suggest that this may be partly because the more background knowledge you have, the better you are at learning and retaining new information by placing that information in the scaffolding of your existing knowledge.
With that in mind, do you have a hobby, especially a highly detailed one?
It turns out your deep knowledge of, say, what color light sabers each Jedi used … or why one kind of mushroom is delicious but another is deadly … or what player is poised to break the record for the most World Cup appearances on Sunday … might not just be taking up space in your brain.
It might help you improve your memory, for whenever you'll need it most.
(On the way out, I had to share a satirical take from The Onion a while back about a fairly similar subject: "Late-Blooming Dad Just Now Getting Into Civil War History.")
7 other things worth knowing today
A record number of journalists—533—are currently being detained worldwide, according to a new report from Reporters Without Borders (RSF). The number of detained women journalists has also risen to a record-breaking total of 78, a nearly 30% increase from 2021, and at least 57 journalists were killed while working this year, a nearly 19% increase from last year. (Semafor)
The Federal Reserve raised its key interest rate Wednesday for the seventh time this year and signaled more hikes to come. But it announced a smaller hike than it had in its past four meetings at a time when inflation is showing signs of easing. (AP)
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat with less than a month remaining in office, announced Tuesday that she is commuting the sentences of all of the state's 17 inmates awaiting execution, saying their death sentences will be changed to life in prison without the possibility of parole. (Yahoo News)
Adam Sandler will receive the 24th Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, the Kennedy Center said in a statement on Tuesday. The prize recognizes "individuals who have had an impact on American society in ways similar to the distinguished 19th-century novelist and essayist" Mark Twain, for whom the award is named, the Kennedy Center said. (CBS News)
Twitter has stopped paying the rent on some of its office leases and hasn't paid numerous other vendors since Elon Musk acquired the company in late October. In other Twitter news, an account that tracked Elon Musk's private jet has been suspended for violating unspecified Twitter rules. It comes a month after Musk pledged to keep the account running even though it was a "direct personal safety risk."(Axios, BBC)
People do still post cool stuff on Twitter, though. Here’s a map of the entire global internet in 1973, with only 46 connected computers.
OK, one more. People seem to like these cute puppy videos to end the newsletter.
Thanks for reading. Photo by Gabriele Agrillo on Unsplash. I wrote about some of this before at Inc.com. See you in the comments!
I'm sorry, but the sight of several dozen dogs crammed in to a single room doesn't warm the cockles of my heart. Is this healthy for them? I know they're warm and dry, but it seems like a possible health hazard.
One thing not mentioned today: Russia and Ukraine completed a prisoner swap hours after the Britney Griner swap. It seems to beg the question why the sudden rush by Putin to get these prisoners back? What are the Russians up to?
A true story for some comic relief. An avid birdwatcher friend recently misplaced his binoculars and in a moment of genius decided to use the scope attached to his friend's rifle to enjoy a birdwatching day in the city. The experience of multiple swat teams converging in on him from all directions is permanently etched into his working, sensory, short and long term memories.