A new environment boosts your memory (but not for everyone)
However tempting it may be, as a student, to lock yourself in your room or in favourite library nook in the days running up to an important exam, it's not a very wise choice, stresses neuroscientist Judith Schomaker.
Her most recent research, done with Marit Ruitenberg and Valentin Baumann and recently published in Scientific Reports, suggests: 'It is precisely when you start learning after you have explored a new environment that you are more likely to remember the learning material. So get out there, preferably to a place you have never been before, such as a completely new city.'
For older people, on the other hand, this advantageous novelty effect does not apply as much; the older you get, the less your memory benefits from a new environment, Judith Schomaker finds in her new research. That finding is not consistent with what researchers previously predicted. 'It has been suggested in the literature for about a decade that a new environment could be used to improve memory in older people. But our research shows that there is actually no memory improvement in that older population.'
Research in NEMO
Schomaker and her colleagues discovered this after a large-scale experiment during NEMO Science Live. 'It was autumn 2020, just before the second lockdown was announced. The museum was super busy, but all exhibitions were closed, so all the people came to our research.' This gave Judith and her team the opportunity to comprehensively survey over four hundred participants aged between 8 and 67. They had them explore a virtual forest environment twice. One half walked through the same environment twice; the other half visited a new place the second time. The participants were then subjected to a range of tests, including memorising a string of words.
'Right before the lockdown, all the people came to our examination'
What they found: 'We saw that especially adolescents and young adults who had visited a new environment remembered the list of words better.' It was further found that headstrong participants who wandered off the beaten virtual paths unsolicited were also better at remembering the words, than participants who had bravely stayed on the path. 'It seems there is a link between how much you explore, your roaming entropy, and how well you are able to remember those words. Of course, it could also be the other way round; that people who are naturally exploratory are better at learning new things.'
That the people who explored a new environment the second time remembered the words better, is presumably due to the dopamine system. 'A new environment boosts your dopamine, which is projected to the hippocampus, the area in your brain related to learning. And dopamine lowers your learning threshold.' From an evolutionary perspective, this makes sense. 'In a new environment, you have to scan quickly: where do I find a reward, where is danger? Beforehand, you don't know what's going to be relevant to you, so it's also not surprising that that learning effect generalises to other areas.'
There, then, lies directly the possible reason why this beneficial memory effect failed in the elderly, as well as in young children. 'In the elderly, the dopamine system is declining and in children that system is still developing, so that could explain why novelty does not have a reinforcing effect for memory in them.'
Still, there remains plenty of scope for follow-up research in this area, including in the elderly. 'We have seen in previous animal research that if you teach older animals after repeated learning , i.e. learning twice in a row, they do remember information better again after and before exposure to a new environment. The effect still seems to exist in them, but maybe the elderly need just a bit more stimulation to trigger that.'
At NEMO, all participants were physically able to visit the experiment, but virtual reality offers plenty of opportunity to bring the new environment to less mobile elderly people, according to Schomaker. 'Elderly people, especially in times of corona, are spending more time at home. With this method, you can still give the elderly the opportunity to explore new environments, but in a safe way: from their chairs in their care homes.'
'Can we enhance the novelty effect if we increase dopamine levels in the brain pharmaceutically?'
In addition, in the future, she would like to discover exactly what happens in the brain when we enter a new place. 'For example, that role of dopamine; how exactly does that work? Can we enhance the effect if we increase dopamine levels in the brain pharmaceutically? If we can better specify that link between novelty and memory, we can also design targeted interventions.'
Until those interventions are in place, surely it is not a crazy idea for you as a student to take your grandparents with you when you will explore a new city. Perhaps it will only stimulate the young hippocampus, but visiting a place together is fun for the both of you.