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The Memory Trick Johns Hopkins Scientists Want You to Try to Find Years of Lost Belongings

Kells McPhillips

Kells McPhillipsMay 25, 2020

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If I had to estimate, I would say I’ve lost about 1,000 water bottles in my 24 years of life. Some likely wound up on airplanes and in gyms; others at the DMV and in every zip code of New York City. You could say that I’ve never quite cracked the secret of remembering where you left something. That is, until now.

If you’re going to take a memory-jogging hot tip from anyone, it should be the folks at Johns Hopkins University. Recently, Jason Fischer, PhD, a cognitive neuroscientist in the university’s department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, found something strange: When we’re on the hunt for something misplaced, remembering the actual texture of the object can be more helpful in uncovering it than recalling its visual attributes. In the case of the missing S’Well, that means that you may have more luck considering the bottle’s smooth, metal texture than thinking, “It had pink polka dots! How could I misplace something with pink polka dots?!”

“What you know about objects can be as important as what you actually see.” —Jason Fischer, PhD

The study reached this conclusion by asking participants to identify items in a sea of clutter. Those who looked for a given object by remembering tactile traits—like hardness or softness—won at the impromptu game of I Spy about 20 percent faster than their counterparts who focused only on visual traits like color and shape. “What makes the finding particularly striking from a vision science standpoint is that simply knowing the latent physical properties of objects is enough to help guide your attention to them,” Dr. Fischer tells Medical Xpress. “It’s surprising because nearly all prior research in this area has focused on a host of visual properties that can facilitate search, but we find that what you know about objects can be as important as what you actually see.”

That means that if you’re trying to find your trusty running headphones, you might just find that imagining their polished, glossy texture guides your way to finding them stuffed behind a couch cushion or… still in your ears. Lost your keys? Think: What do they feel like? and you may just have a eureka moment that cuts through your COVID-19-induced brain fog and delivers your possessions back to you.

Maybe (just maybe?) this means I’ll never have to replace a water bottle again?

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