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Motion Aids Memory

By Erika Engelhaupt
Jonathan Flombaum
Jonathan Flombaum is an associate professor in the Department of Psychology and Brain Sciences and directs the Visual Thinking Lab at Johns Hopkins University.

Four years ago, Jonathan Flombaum was shopping with his 4-year-old son, Jerry, when the child performed an amazing mental feat. Pointing at a big foam toy, Jerry exclaimed, “Thor’s hammer!”

“He just lost his mind when he saw this toy,” Flombaum says. That may sound like typical 4-year-old behavior, but Flombaum was shocked that his son recognized the Norse god’s hammer—Jerry had never seen such a thing, at least not in real life. The closest he had come was seeing Thor in a comic book. “He saw this little two-dimensional, half-inch drawing of Thor’s hammer,” Flombaum says, “and then he saw this large 3-D thing made of foam.” Yet Jerry knew instantly that the toy was Thor’s hammer.

As a cognitive psychologist leading Johns Hopkins University’s Visual Thinking Lab, Flombaum understood his son’s mental leap to be complex. Most of us take for granted that we’ll recognize an object even if its position or the lighting changes, or we’ve seen it only in a drawing. The main goal of the Visual Thinking Lab’s research is to understand how the brain is capable of processing such images. What gives us this incredible ability to remember what we see, and why do we remember some things better than others?

The answers may not only help us better understand and harness our own memories but could also improve object recognition in artificial intelligence (AI), which is an important task for the burgeoning technology in robots and driverless cars. “If you train a computer program on lots and lots of hammers and none of them are rusty, then when the computer sees an orange one, it says, ‘That’s not a hammer!’” Flombaum says. “My child can outperform the best AI.”

One key to stronger memory, he believes, is that our brains use an astounding amount of information to build a flexible mental image of an object. Flombaum calls this a Platonic image, a kind of ideal version of an object. For instance, our brain’s Platonic image of a hammer allows us to recognize any hammer as a hammer, even if it has gotten rusty or is bigger than normal.

In his latest work, Flombaum has been studying one way our brains build these Platonic images: using motion. We’re more likely to remember an object if we see it at least twice while it’s moving. This may be because seeing an object move lets us see it from varying angles and distances, Flombaum says, and also takes advantage of our brain’s tendency to recognize patterns.

More surprising, we have a harder time remembering objects if they’re depicted as moving in ways that violate the rules of physics. Flombaum’s team showed volunteers pictures of everyday objects moving across a computer screen, some along set paths and others behaving strangely, for example disappearing and reappearing on the other side of the screen. In pop quizzes afterward, people remembered the objects that had moved predictably nearly 20 percent better than those that had violated the laws of physics.

This sensitivity to Newton’s laws may happen because the hippocampus, the part of the brain that forms new memories, is constantly filtering what to store based on patterns. Seeing an object move twice along the same path, Flombaum says, triggers the hippocampus’s tendency to complete a pattern—the two experiences are combined to form one stronger memory of what is assumed to be the same object.

When an object’s movements violate the laws of physics, on the other hand, the brain draws on our core knowledge of the world to decide that since an object can’t disappear and then rematerialize, there must have been two different objects. Memories of both get stored but are weaker.

Motion is still just one piece of the puzzle, Flombaum says. Our brain can remember still images and even extrapolate them into three dimensions—just as Jerry did with the comicbook hammer. He didn’t have to see Thor swing his hammer twice in order to remember it. Flombaum hopes that one day research will help figure out how the brain recognizes objects in the first place—and how to re-create that amazing ability.

Portrait by Caroline Andrieu; Illustration by Pep Montserrat
We are more likely to remember an object if we see it at least twice while it's moving, says Jonathan Flombaum, because that triggers the hippocampus's tendency to complete a pattern. The brain combines the two moments and forms one stronger memory.

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