The Big Smoke

Got an exam and worried you won’t remember the answers? Walk backwards


The impact of physical activity on our cognition is well known, but surprising new research suggests merely walking backwards can boost short term memory. Now where did we put those exercise shoes?



Very often when people are trying to rack their brains they play brain games, or make sure they have a good night’s sleep, but have they attempted to just walk backwards ten metres? It seems like an odd approach trying to boost your memory but according to a recent piece of research from the University of Roehampton, there could be a strong link between how our brains form memories in conjunction with time and space. The study focused initially on 114 volunteers who were asked to watch a video and then recall what they saw in the video; those who walked backwards around ten metres were twice as likely to get the answers right than those who didn’t. The idea that simply walking backwards could boost short term memory astounded the researchers who couldn’t quite work out exactly why this occurred, and proceeded to test the focus group in a series of different variations of activities.

The researcher heading up the experiment, Aleksandar Aksentijevic, said that “’it’s a partial vindication of this idea that time is really expressed via space,” while other academics have claimed it’s an interesting find but would need to be replicated in other research groups to really determine the outputs.

What we do know though, is the impact of physical activity on memory and function, with research finding that physical exercise can boost memory and cognitive function significantly over a six month period. By stimulating physiological changes (such as reducing insulin resistance), chemicals affect the new blood vessel growth on the brain leading to healthier brain cells. Activities such as tai chi have also been found to enhance cognitive function due to executive function, which is responsible for brain activities such as planning and multi tasking. This is particularly important as we age, where taking a proactive approach to physical exercise can help benefit those at risk of suffering from dementia, and other illnesses associated primarily with the ageing process.

The research is vast… Perhaps Michael Jackson moonwalked backwards all those times to help jolt his memory into remembering the annoying lyrics of Black or White?

In 2016, Harvard Medical School published a report finding that 20 minutes of activity (say, a walk) was able to sharpen focus and quicken decision making time. The research did not just focus on those over 60, but rather an age group spanning 19 to 90 years of age. Across the experiment, those who exercised saw significant improvements in their memory function, than those who remained stationary during the test activities. Most studies however, have found that the positive shifts were really evident around the six month mark, meaning you can’t just do this as a once off and hope to ace all your exams or work activities – it’s about incremental and consistent exercise that ensures both your body and your brain are functioning effectively, and boosts the size of your hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with verbal memory and learning.

While we cannot really explain the reason why specifically walking backwards helped boost this research group’s short term memory function, the research around our physiology significantly impacting or even impairing our brain function is vast. Perhaps Michael Jackson moonwalked backwards all those times to help jolt his memory into remembering the annoying lyrics of Black or White? Hypothesis testing required.