Which of these two pictures is more memorable?
The shot on the left is interesting primarily because Nora’s in it — if it was just a picture of a muddy trail, it wouldn’t be notable at all to most people. The shot on the right is a dramatic mountain scene that you might remember even though (or perhaps because) there’s not a human in sight.
But a seasoned hiker might be more interested in the photo of the muddy trail, which gives more information about the difficulty of the hike than a panoramic shot. Just as expert chess players are good at remembering the position of chess pieces on the board, maybe expert hikers are better at remembering details about trails than novice hikers.
The classic study of expert and novice chess players was conducted in 1973 by William Chase and Herbert Simon, and found that chess experts could remember configuration of chess boards better than novices — as long as the chess pieces were arranged in a plausible game configuration, and not just randomly arrayed.
Since then, dozens of studies have found that experts in a variety of fields have better memory for things related to their area of expertise, from football formations to chest X-rays. But according to a research team led by Satoru Kawamura, all of these results can be explained by perceptual chunking: Experts are better than novices at lumping information into manageable groups. Hiking scenes, they argue, aren’t easily chunked in the same way. Do expert hikers still have better memory for scenes relevant to hiking?
The researchers showed 35 hikers a set of 30 pictures — one at a time, for 2 seconds each — and asked them to imagine they were progressing on a hike and to try to remember the pictures for a recall test later on. Half of the hikers were experts who had more than four years of experience and had served as group leaders on hikes. The others were novices, averaging just 1.2 years of experience. Half the pictures depicted important functional features of the trail (river crossings, ladders, fallen trees). The other pictures just showed scenery along the hike (waterfalls, views, or easy, wide trail).
After viewing the pictures, they were distracted for several minutes with a math quiz. Finally they were tested with a set of 60 pictures: the 30 originals plus 30 distractors from the same hike. Respondents had to indicate whether they had seen the pictures before. Did the experts remember more pictures than novices? Here are the results:
This graph combines the results for correct responses and false alarms (more correct and fewer false alarms leads to a higher d’ value). For low-functionality scenes, there was no significant difference between expert and novice hikers. But for high-functionality scenes, experts scored significantly higher than novices. Even after controlling for the older age of the more experienced hikers, the effect persisted.
Kawamura’s team says this study demonstrates that better expert memory for scenes in their field of expertise isn’t just due to chunking. Perhaps experts simply devote more attention to the scenes that give them more important information.
I can say that I still have very distinct memories of the muddy trail on that hike with Nora, while I only remembered the particular scene in the second photo when I was going through my pictures to find an illustration for this post. Whatever the mechanism, my anecdotal experience as a hiker is that I remember difficult trails better than the particular scenery of a hike.
Kawamura, S., Suzuki, S., Morikawa, K. (2007). Short report: The effect of expertise in hiking on recognition memory for mountain scenes. Memory, 15(7), 768-775. DOI: 10.1080/09658210701582315