What is it about?

When we are asked to freely recall all the items we remember from a shopping list, there are multiple ways to recall the information. In this study, using computational simulations over a list learning task, we identified that even though one is allowed to recall information in any order, the optimal order (that leads to most material correctly recalled) to search memories is to go in the order of the list. Conventionally, one would expect that the items at the bottom of the list are the ones most recently read and are therefore the freshest in one’s memory. However, contrary to this intuition, the optimal recall order is to go against one’s urge to recall the most recently seen items, and instead start from the top of the list and go down in order. We proposed that mnemonic techniques such as the method of loci — which is commonly used in memory competitions— are successful because they impose this optimal order during memory recall.

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Why is it important?

For decades, researchers have observed that when searching memories, people tend to recall information in an order. However, researchers did not understand why such behavior occurs so frequently and naturally to participants. This study is the first to provide an explanation: recalling information in this way is useful in facilitating better memory recall. Our work also offers tantalizing insights into how to further improve human memory through imposing the optimal way to search memories.

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This page is a summary of: Optimal policies for free recall., Psychological Review, June 2022, American Psychological Association (APA), DOI: 10.1037/rev0000375.
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