Have you ever been in a rush or in a stressful situation and found you were struggling to remember basic things? When we’re in the heat of the moment, details such as where you hastily placed your keys can be foggy compared to when you are in a relaxed state. But realizing the way our memory works can vary based on context may be an opportunity to enhance our cognitive, problem-solving, and learning abilities.
Researchers from the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences have uncovered a brain hack that could enhance your memory and even potentially improve mental health. It’s all about how different mindsets impact memory retention — and the researchers showed all of this with a creative experiment that had people pretend they were art thieves.
Urgent versus curious
For their study, postdoctoral researcher Alyssa Sinclair and her co-author Candice Yuxi Wang recruited 420 adults to take part in an art heist simulation. Participants were divided into two groups, each with a different context and motivation.
In one group, participants were told they were master thieves executing the heist in the moment, while the other group imagined themselves as thieves scouting the museum for a future heist. The first group was in a high-pressure situation while the other had more time to express their curiosity.
Interestingly, both groups played the same computer game in which they had to explore an art museum with colored doors, representing different rooms, and click on a door to reveal a painting and its value. Their goal was to find as many valuable paintings they could and they earned real money if they were good at the game.
The next day when they logged into the game, the participants had to complete a surprise quiz. Participants had to recognize 175 different paintings, some from the previous day and some new, unfamiliar ones, and recall their values.
The results were intriguing: those who were in the curious exploration mode performed better on the memory test. They correctly recognized more paintings and their associated values.
On the other hand, the group in the urgent mode proved better at remembering the paintings with the highest value compared to the people who were scouting the museum. Although they remembered fewer paintings, the total value of the paintings they could remember was about $230 higher than the collection of the ‘curious thieves’.
Dr. Alison Adcock, director of Duke Institute for Brain Sciences, points out that neither mindset is necessarily better than the other. Both mindsets have their advantages depending on the situation. Urgency might be beneficial for short-term problems, like reacting to immediate threats, while curiosity can be more effective for encouraging long-term memory and lifestyle changes.
“It’s valuable to learn which mode is adaptive in a given moment and use it strategically,” Dr. Adcock said.
Researchers are now investigating how these different mindsets activate distinct parts of the brain. Early evidence suggests that the “urgent mode” engages the amygdala, a brain region associated with fear memory, leading to focused, efficient memories. On the other hand, curious exploration seems to stimulate dopamine in the hippocampus, a brain region essential for forming detailed long-term memories.
But the researchers are hopeful that these findings could have implications beyond memory enhancement. She is exploring how this research might benefit psychiatric patients by encouraging flexibility and curiosity, which could lead to psychological approaches that act similarly to pharmaceuticals.
“Most of adult psychotherapy is about how we encourage flexibility, like with curious mode” Dr. Adcock said. “But it’s much harder for people to do since we spend a lot of our adult lives in an urgency mode.”
“For me, the ultimate goal would be to teach people to do this for themselves,” Dr. Adcock said. “That’s empowering.”
The findings appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
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