A 43-year-old Indonesian man is walking 435 miles, from his home in East Java to the capital of Jakarta — backwards. Covering about 12 to 19 miles a day, with a rear-view mirror attached to his backpack so he can avoid bumping into things, he has undertaken his trek to call attention to his country’s high degree of deforestation.
Chances are he’ll remember every step along the way. According to a Harvard University Department of Psychology study published earlier this year, people who walk backwards, imagine walking backwards, or watch a video simulating a backwards walk have a sharper recall of recent events than those who walk forward or sit still.
Because numerous studies have shown links between memory and motion, researchers decided to test the relative effects of forward and backward movement on recall ability. They asked 114 people to take part in a variety of memory experiments, showing each one a word list, a group of images, or a video of a staged purse-snatching.
Next, they asked participants to walk forward, walk backward, sit still, imagine walking backward or forward, or watch a video that simulated backward or forward movement. Then they quizzed them on details of the information they’d been shown earlier.
Without exception, those who walked backwards, imagined doing so, or viewed the backward-moving video had better recall than those who sat still, and in five out of six cases, they also remembered more than the forwards group. The boost in memory lasted an average of ten minutes in all cases.
Harvard professor of psychology Dr. Daniel Schacter admits that the mechanism by which this occurs is something of a mystery. Perhaps, he suggests, people somehow associate walking backward with the past and that triggers memories.
This doesn’t mean that poor memory might be a, so to speak, reversible condition. There are numerous things — such as stress — that can lead to memory loss. These are the factors that are known to contribute to memory loss.
In any case, Schacter adds, “It’s really too early to say whether there would be practical applications.” This isn’t the case for this pleasant activity which has been shown to aid mental sharpness.