People are much better at learning stuff about a subject when they are already familiar with it, new research showed. The more familiar you are with something, the more likely you are to remember things about it. They demonstrated this – how else – with Pokemon.

Weiwei Zhang, assistant professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, believes the mind to be an almost infinite resource.

“The human mind can store almost an infinite amount of information offline and more importantly process a vast amount of information online in everyday life,” said Zhang, pointing to “online” examples such as driving routes, conversations, and to-do lists. “These amazing capabilities are supported by a core cognitive function, working memory, that holds information online for a short period of time, so that we could engage in various mental operations.”

However, all this potential has to pass through the working memory. When we talk to someone, we project what we’re saying in the working memory, which has a much smaller capacity. As a result, the working memory becomes a sort of bottleneck, limiting the potential of cognitive abilities such as creativity and fluid intelligence. So if you want to improve your mind, it’s there that you have to work.

What Zhang found was that you can actually supplement the working memory with long-term memory. So he recruited volunteers for the study, most of which were students at UC Riverside – more familiar with the first, classic Pokemon than with the fifth generation ones.

“We wanted to take advantage of the participants’ previous — almost lifetime — experience with Pokémon characters. Specifically, to compare their working memory of Pokémon characters that they are more familiar with — first-generation Pokémon — with Pokémon characters that they are less familiar with, like fifth-generation Pokémon characters,” Zhang said. The Pokemon also serve as good experiment tools because they are memorable and generally different from one another.

The experiment had several stages. First, the participants were asked to name a small set of Pokemon characters, then report how much they liked each character. Then, they were flashed five random Pokemon characters for half a second, and asked to remember them. Finally, the participants were shown a single Pokemon character, which could either be one they had already seen (in one of the previous two stages), or a new one. Both possibilities were equally likely, but participants had a much easier time remembering Pokemon they were already familiar with before the study. The more familiar they were with a character, the likelier they were to remember it.

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The study indicates what many people already feel, at an intuitive level – that learning something is easier when you’re familiar with it. This could have big implications, especially for our education.

“These results suggest that long-term memory, specifically familiarity, could boost working memory capacity, another example of ‘practice makes perfect,'” Zhang said. “These findings could have further implications in applied settings such as classroom learning. For example, those preparation courses for MCAT or SAT may have familiarized their students with the testing procedure and the scope of assessments such that the students could perform better simply because they had better working memory for the testing materials.”

Journal Reference: Weizhen Xie, Weiwei Zhang. Familiarity increases the number of remembered Pokémon in visual short-term memory. Memory & Cognition, 2016; DOI: 10.3758/s13421-016-0679-7

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