The next time you’re having a stressful time remembering where you left your keys, phone or glasses, don’t necessarily give up on your memory completely.
That’s what Brigham and Women’s Hospital researchers have concluded in a new study, saying that our memory for objects might be better than we think.
In a series of experiments, the researchers tested people’s ability to remember where and when they saw an object — spatial and temporal memory. The scientists discovered that both forms of memory are massive.
“People often think that their memory is terrible, but our results show that we can recall where and when an object appeared with good, if not perfect, precision for a large number of objects,” said corresponding author Jeremy Wolfe, of the Brigham’s Department of Surgery.
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Previous research has shown that if people are shown a large number of objects, they are very good at remembering which objects they have seen. The new Brigham study suggests that people are also surprisingly good at knowing where and when they saw those items.
When shown objects on a 7-by-7 grid, many people could recall the location of over 100 items, choosing the right location or a cell right next to the correct one.
“While our spatial and temporal memory for objects may not be as impressive as some birds or squirrels, who have to remember where they hid their food for the winter, our data show that we do have massive memory for objects,” Wolfe said.
To conduct their study, the researchers asked participants to remember a number of objects placed on a 7-by-7 grid. Each item was highlighted for two seconds by placing a red square around it.
After participants were shown the items, all of the images were removed and the participants were then tested on their ability to recall if they had seen an item before and, if so, where it had been located on the grid.
“In some ways, this is a bit like the game of Memory that many of us played as children, where we turned over a card and then tried to recall the location of a matching card that we had seen before,” Wolfe said. “But unlike in the children’s game, we didn’t just count the exact ‘correct’ answer. We measured how close the participant got to the previously seen image.”
Altogether, participants saw 300 different objects. Many observers could localize over 100 items to within one cell of the true object location.
In another experiment, participants were shown items one at a time and were asked to click on a timeline to indicate when they had seen the object. The researchers reported that participants localized 60% to 80% of old items to within 10% of their correct time — significantly better than the 40% they could have gotten by guessing.