Climbing trees improves memory

If someone asked you to touch your nose with your eyes closed, you would succeed without difficulty. This is possible thanks to a special ability, proprioception, which allows us to perceive the position of different body parts in space. And proprioception has an influence on our cognitive abilities, particularly working memory. This is one of the conclusions of a recent study demonstrating a drastic increase in memory following specific types of exercise.

Whether you are conscious of it or not, your brain is perpetually aware of the position of every part of your body. It’s much like a sixth sense, only unlike the other five, this sense involves the internal rather than external perception of the body. Proprioception works with the help of receptors located on the muscles and ligaments and, among other things, helps us find our balance.

Dr. Ross Alloway, a research associate in the department of psychology at the University of North Florida and Tracy Alloway, an associate professor, wanted to measure the effect of activities that strongly induce proprioception on working memory performance. Working memory is a type of short-term memory that allows us to temporarily store and process information while we are performing an action.

For the experiment, the researchers recruited volunteers between the ages of 18 and 59. Once their working memory had been tested, they carried out a series of activities that involve proprioception, such as climbing a tree, balancing on a beam, running barefoot, and navigating over, under and between obstacles.

After two hours of physical exercise, their working memory was tested again. The results revealed a 50% increase in memory capacity, a considerable improvement that is rarely seen with other activities. For the researchers, this positive impact on working memory is due to the dynamic nature of the activities used in the experiment. Because the environment is constantly changing throughout these types of activities, the brain is forced to regularly update information and adapt to changes. And the brain uses working memory to do it. However, static proprioceptive activities like yoga do not appear to produce these effects.

“This research suggests that by doing activities that make us think, we can exercise our brains as well as our bodies,” says Ross Alloway. For Tracy Alloway, “Improving working memory can have a beneficial effect on so many areas in our life, and it's exciting to see that proprioceptive activities can enhance it in such a short period of time.”
Source: Alloway R.G., Alloway T.P. The Working Memory Benefits of Proprioceptively Demanding Training: a Pilot Study 1,2. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 2015; 120 (3): 766 DOI: 10.2466/22.PMS.120v18x1

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