Cognitive Daily

i-eca0cf2af9fc3ac4445c7dff7d8aab70-research.gifi-9ec96d02dd10ac4930e7fd82e80cc364-dijkstra1.jpgWhen we see a familiar face, or even a photo of a favorite car or pet, we’re often flooded with memories from our past. Sometimes just seeing a person or object that’s similar to the ones in our memory will trigger recollections we never knew we had. Maybe you’ve had a memory triggered by a scent or the texture of an object. Sometimes emotions such as happiness or anger will spur vivid memories, too.

A new study adds an unexpected method to the list of ways to spur memories about our past: body position. That’s right: just holding your body in the right position means you’ll have faster, more accurate access to certain memories. If you stand as if holding a golf club, you’re quicker to remember an event that happened while you were golfing than if you position your body in a non-golfing pose.

Even more fascinating than the facts about body position and memory is how they were learned. A team led by Katinka Dijkstra actually had young adult and older adult volunteers assume different body positions while asking them to remember particular events from their lives. Sometimes the body position matched the memory:

Please, stand up and wave. Now, tell me a memory of one particular time you waved
at someone.

And sometimes it didn’t:

Sit in the chair, lean forward and place your elbows on the table and your hands on your head. Now, tell me a memory of one particular time you were playing baseball.

The entire experiment was videotaped and participants’ reaction times were measured. Here are those results:

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Regardless of their age, the memories were reported significantly sooner when the volunteers’ body position matched the memory being asked for. As expected, the older adults (average age 70) were slower overall than young adults (college students averaging age 22), but both groups displayed the same pattern.

The really clever portion of the study came next. The researchers had no way to assess the accuracy of these memories, so instead they took a different approach: participants were told that the study was also designed to test memory for future events, so each person was asked to call the experimenter two weeks after the initial experiment. All participants remembered to make the call, but the real point of the call was to test for memory accuracy: the experimenter asked each caller to remember as many as possible of the events he or she had first recalled two weeks previously. Here are those results:

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Significantly more events were recalled when the participants had assumed a matching body position compared to when they hadn’t; the effect was especially pronounced for young adults (though this may simply be due to the fact that older adults had older memories). Even though you might think that recalling a memory of a visit to the dentist’s office while standing in a baseball pose might be more memorable than a memory where the body position matched, the reverse was true.

Dijkstra’s team believes that the effect may be due to the way memories are stored in the brain: one theory of memory suggests that memories are composed of linked sensory fragments — odors, sights, sounds, and even body positions. Simply activating one or more of those fragments makes the entire memory more likely to be retrieved. In any case, if you’re trying to recall a particular incident in your life, putting your body in the right position might help you remember it faster and more accurately. The key appears to be your body position when the memory occurred. So if you’re trying to remember, say, the 1993 World Series, unless you were at the game, the way to access that memory would probably be to sit on your living room sofa holding a cold beer.

Dijkstra, K., Kaschak, M.P., & Zwaan, R.A. (2007). Body posture faciltates retrieval of autobiographical memories. Cognition, 102, 139-149.

Comments

  1. #1 Roy Huggins
    March 27, 2007

    Interesting to see a good study on this. NLP has always assumed this to be true, but apparently with little more than anecdotal evidence.

  2. #2 Michael Anes
    March 27, 2007

    Very cool study. It reminds me of “action codes” during reading (why do we remember *where* we got information from on a page?), as postulated by Richardson and Spivey (2000)…
    http://cogprints.org/904/

  3. #4 Michael Anes
    March 27, 2007

    Ha! Obviously my embodied cognition ain’t working too well, as I missed the repetition!

    Of course, I read the Mixing Memory post at home and the Cognitive Daily post at work, so I have a built in excuse…

  4. #5 Dave Munger
    March 27, 2007

    Heh. Sorry about that, Chris. We need a central registry of all the articles we write up!

  5. #6 Exasperatrix
    March 27, 2007

    Your timing is perfect. I was just wondering why it’s so much easier to remember my dreams if I make sure to go back to the position I was in when I woke up. It works in reverse, too; after a bad dream, you can just roll over and suddenly it’s much more difficult to remember the dream.

  6. #7 Sadie
    March 27, 2007

    Interesting. I would say that I probably have a better-than-average memory, particularly for long-ago events and emotions (my short-term memory isn’t so hot). I have noticed that on several occasions seemingly lost memories have come back to me while lying in bed. I don’t know if that has to do with my bodily position so much as simply being the effect of trying to clear my mind for sleep, though.

  7. #8 anonymous
    March 28, 2007

    Where are the error bars on the graphs??? Without them, we know nothing. This is very important for science. Everyone should be deeply sceptical of any conclusions drawn from data that hasn’t undergone error analysis!

  8. #9 Dave Munger
    March 28, 2007

    Anonymous:

    Of course this research has undergone error analysis; it wouldn’t have been published without it. In this case, the authors didn’t actually publish errors because they used an ANOVA to determine significance, but I could have computed SEs based on the reported standard deviations.

    We don’t use error bars because most readers don’t understand error bars. There’s a difference between standard deviation, standard error, and confidence interval, and to explain that difference every time would be so tiresome that we’d run out of readers quite quickly. If you’re interested in that level of detail, you can always read the original journal article.

    However, we always indicate whether a particular result is significant. We include graphs to give readers a general sense of the data; significance is reported separately.

    Tomorrow’s research post will offer more on this subject, so I encourage you to come back then.

  9. #10 Dave Group
    March 29, 2007

    From now on, I’m going to stop reading while I’m sitting on the toilet. :o

  10. #11 MC
    March 29, 2007

    Isn’t this what psychologists call context-dependent retrieval?

  11. #12 Jamie
    March 30, 2007

    Interesting topic. In educaton this is called state dependent learning. I have a study on my hard drive (somewhere) where researchers “taught” groups of people to perform a task that had to be completed under water. One group was taught on land, the other group under water. The group taught underwater performed better when asked to perform the task in the same state as they were taught. Seemed kind of obvious to me lol Perhaps this is why I am not a researcher.

  12. #13 Ellen Weber
    April 17, 2007

    Interesting study – it reminds me of the research that shows we remember more when triggered by the aroma that accompanied the task also. Must be based on a similar operation within the basal ganglia part of the brain. Interesting research and thanks for sharing it!

  13. #14 Robyn
    September 8, 2007

    This is fascinatings research. I’m curious about the link that body position has in relation to memory. Thanks for great peer reviewed postings on this web site!

  14. #15 Esther
    May 4, 2008

    Thanks for sharing,very interesting topic. Even tomorrow i will be presenting this article in one of my psychology class!!