We write so frequently about how to improve memory and cognition. We’ve talked about how sleep, diet, activity levels and many other factors can impact our ability to recall information. A new study has found that simply reframing how you are thinking can give you a boost.
Anyone who has ever been in a stressful situation knows that things can slip your mind when you feel pressured. If your family is rushing out the door for an event, it’s easy to forget something you wanted to bring because you feel harried. But, a new study found that even imagining you are in an urgent situation lessens your ability to think clearly.
In the study, researchers had people visit a virtual art museum. They told one group of people to imagine they were preparing to rob the museum and making a plan. They told another group to imagine they were in the midst of committing the crime. The researchers labeled the groups as curious and urgent. The people who were told to plan the heist — the curious group — were better at recalling the paintings they saw than those who had imagined stealing them — the urgent group.
Dr. Alyssa Sinclair, from the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences, explained, “For the urgent group, we told them, ‘You’re a master thief, you’re doing the heist right now. Steal as much as you can!’ Whereas for the curious group, we told them they were a thief who’s scouting the museum to plan a future heist.”
Both groups went through the digital museum looking for the most valuable paintings to steal. They were paid real money for finding high-value pieces. The next day the groups answered a questionnaire with 175 paintings, 100 of which had been in the game. They were asked to remember the value of any they recalled being in the museum.
The urgent group was better at remembering where the more expensive paintings had been hung. But the curious group recognized more paintings and their value.
The researchers pointed out that the difference in memory actually makes sense biologically. “If you’re on a hike and there’s a bear, you don’t want to be thinking about long-term planning,” Dr. Sinclair said. “You need to focus on getting out of there right now.”
Knowing where the highest-value paintings were located is like knowing which way to go to get away from a bear. If you are in the middle of a crime, you want to grab the most valuable stuff. But, if you have time to plot things out, learning more detailed information is easier.
The early analysis of the research suggests that urgency activates the amygdala and produces sharp, concise memories. The curious people formed memories in their hippocampus, resulting in detailed long-term recollections.
The team believes their find could be very helpful in therapy for dealing with stress and learning to cope with everyday pressure. “Most of adult psychotherapy is about how we encourage flexibility, like with curious mode,” said Dr. Alison Adcock, director of the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences. “But it’s much harder for people to do since we spend a lot of our adult lives in an urgency mode.” (https://today.duke.edu/2023/07/one-simple-brain-hack-might-boost-learning-and-improve-mental-health)
Learning to differentiate between when urgency and curiosity are needed could help people with decision-making and later recall. Dr. Adcock said that’s the ultimate goal of the research.
In the meantime, we can take away an important lesson from this research. When there isn’t a bear in front of us, taking a step back can help us make clearer choices and have better recall later. Facing a situation with a mindset of “now, now, now” will make it harder to remember later. Taking the urgency out of a problem and allowing yourself to think ahead to what needs to happen for a plan to be successful will help you more than worrying about whether or not you have everything you need as you head out the door.