While watching trivia game shows like Danger!, You may be surprised at the contestants’ quick and impressive ability to give the correct answers time and time again. A new study led by a Danger! champion: get help from others Danger! contestants and trivia experts—suggests that this extraordinary trivia skill may be strengthened by links between two memory systems.
Monica Thieu, a multi-time Danger! contestant, had been eager to study the psychology of trivia ever since she won the Danger! University championship in 2012. Years later, as a graduate student, he began addressing this question with his collaborators, using various methods to assess the recall of obscure facts in participants of varying levels of trivia skills. She and her colleagues found that people with more trivia experience were more likely to remember new facts. in general, and were more likely to remember those facts when they could also remember the context where they first learned them, a trend not seen in those with lower trivia skills. The findings were published February 12 in the journal. Bulletin and psychonomic review.
Thieu had noticed an “anecdotal trend,” he says, when he returned to the Danger! stage for the third time for 2019 Danger! Star Games. “A lot of Danger! The contestants I spoke to were able to report ‘who, what, when, where, and sometimes how’ of how they originally learned different facts,” says Thieu, now a postdoctoral researcher in psychology at Emory University. He later consulted with other contestants on the show, including winner of 13 consecutive games Matt Jackson and winner of the highest regular season prize of all time, Ken Jennings, to see if this rang true. One contestant said he remembered the cover of his history textbook, Thieu recalls, and another noted learning a fact in a movie he watched with a friend.
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To go beyond the anecdotes, Thieu’s team recruited study participants from LearnedLeague, an online trivia community for people of all experience levels, and gave them a simulation. Danger! Hearing test with 50 archived questions. About half of the participants were considered trivia “experts” if they scored at or above the median of 35 out of 50 points, a score value generally assumed to be the official one. Danger! evidence qualification cut-off point for a chance to audition (although the show’s producers have not publicly released the exact score needed to pass the test). Of the participants, 45 had previously appeared on a game show.
Researchers then created virtual exhibits in science and history museums to organically present new facts to people. The virtual museums featured exhibits on a variety of topics, such as dinosaurs, gemstone geology, and musical instrument history. Each display contained posters detailing multiple related facts that were unfamiliar to participants, along with a corresponding photograph of a relevant object. After receiving an audio-guided tour of all the exhibits, participants answered 80 trivia questions based on the facts presented in the museums.
Trivia experts were more likely to correctly remember a new fact, especially when they recalled the photographs associated with the corresponding exhibit and the museum environment in which the fact was displayed. In other words, the trivia experts’ memory of the environment and context seemed to combine with and enhance their recall of the facts.
“Semantic memory“helps us remember facts, and”episodic memory”stores memories of events. The two are classically thought of as separate systems, says Mariam Aly, assistant professor of psychology at Columbia University and lead author of the new paper. But this study adds to growing evidence in recent years showing that these memory banks may be intimately intertwined.
Linking scenes and sensory information is really good for preserving memory, Thieu says. That’s why tactics like creating a memory palace (visualizing a place in your mind while attaching different information to various points within that space) help you remember better. Retaining information about dinosaur history can be difficult if you’re just reading a boring passage from a textbook. But if you’re learning from a fossil exhibit at a museum while on vacation in New York City, that same information might have more staying power. “If trivia experts have more links between these two different systems, that could be one of the reasons why they seem to do better,” Thieu says.
These results, however, don’t mean that people with better trivia skills have better memories overall, Aly says. On average, the episodic memory of trivia experts was no better than that of non-experts. But Thieu emphasizes that the way memory systems are connected is not binary in that some people link their episodic and semantic memories and others do not. This skill exists on a spectrum, with trivia experts clustered on one end.
The new study aligns with what we already know about memory retrieval, but the authors’ question and experimental approach were an interesting way to study learning in real life, says Jen Coane, associate professor of psychology at Colby. College in Maine. One thing to keep in mind, she adds, and that Thieu’s team did note, is that this experiment only tests relatively short-term memory. Participants answered the trivia quiz just half an hour after viewing the virtual exhibits. To draw concrete conclusions about the connection between episodic and semantic memory in learning, “we should probably look at longer time scales,” Coane says.
Alan Lin, Los Angeles-based software engineer and six-day teacher Danger! winner in 2017, is personally intrigued by how this might relate to the way people make connections between facts, especially since he doesn’t think his memory is that remarkable. “In fact, I think I have a pretty poor episodic memory,” says Lin, who was consulted by the study’s authors for the new research. He also doesn’t think his semantic memory is that strong on its own. “I don’t think I can memorize 100 digits of pi,” Lin says. But he points out that no fact is an island: Lin’s ability to remember trivial facts is excellent, he says, because he can incorporate the knowledge he learns into his understanding of that topic and connect it into a “network of context.” This research shows that “much more detailed distinctions need to be made between these different forms of memory,” he adds.
The act of learning and remembering trivial facts may seem trivial to some, Thieu says, but it’s actually exactly the type of learning that happens in school. These new findings further support the idea that rich learning experiences help bolster memory and data retention beyond the monotony of flashcards and textbooks, he adds.
“All of us who love and enjoy trivia are not in the business of making flashcards,” Lin says. “It’s the joy of learning new information and connecting that information to other things we already know and bringing all of that together into our understanding of the world.”