Are Moving Objects Actually Easier to Remember?

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A person’s memory is greatly improved when the object in the memory is moving, according to a new study from Johns Hopkins University.

There have been many studies about the power of recollection. What causes people to remember certain instances and not others, how smells and colors can jog a person’s memory, and many other such studies have been published in various journals. This most recent research, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, shows that a strong memory is created when the object moves in a predictable way. For example, a person running in a straight line is more likely to stick in someone’s mind than a person standing still.

Credit: Geoffrey Fairchild/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

“The way I look is only a small part of how you know who I am,” said Jonathan Flombaum, assistant professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Johns Hopkins University. “If you see me move across a room, you’re getting data about how I look from different distances and in different lighting and from different angles. Will this help you recognize me later? No one has ever asked that question. We find that the answer is yes.”

Volunteers for the study were shown video clips to test their memory. In one clip, a dot on the screen moved steadily from one point to another. In the other clip, the dot appeared in one spot and then randomly reappeared in another without any discernible pattern. When asked to recall what they had seen, the participants could remember the video clip in which the dot moved in a single, easily followed pattern 20 percent better than the randomized clips. When the object moved in a way that seemed natural and expected, the person’s memory was much clearer and more accurate.

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“Your brain has certain automatic rules for how it expects things in the world to behave,” said Mark Schurgin, co-author of the study and a graduate student in Flombaum’s Visual Thinking Lab. “It turns out, these rules affect your memory for what you see.”

The basis for this study was the idea of “core knowledge.” This is defined as the “innate understanding of basic physics that all humans, and many animals, are born with.” This creates a person’s basic comprehension of the world, and how things interact with their surroundings. While a person may not ever see an object moving in the exact same way more than once, seeing that object moving as one would expect allows the full image of that object to solidify in a person’s memory. Recollection, therefore, is easier later on because the person had a complete understanding of the object and what it was.

“With visual memory, what matters to our brain is that an object is the same,” Flombaum said. “People are more likely to recognize an object if they see it at least twice, moving in the same path.”

In the future, Flombaum and his team hope to use this information to develop algorithms that allow machines to better recognize objects and interact with them.

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Marissa DiPietro

Marissa is a health and fitness writer from the Tampa Bay area. In addition to researching the latest trending topics, she enjoys instructing kickboxing classes and posting incessantly to her Instagram account.