When 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
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:
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:
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.