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New study uses Pokemon to look at memory

File: People playing Pokemon Go.
Ruby Wallau/NPR
File: People playing Pokemon Go.

A new study from UC Riverside set out to test how we learn and retain information using a person's ability to memorize characters from the video game Pokemon.

The researchers found that people with previous knowledge of the game could more easily memorize new characters, suggesting that knowledge stored in our long-term memory can impact how effective our short-term memory is.

Pokemon fans can rattle off dozens of Poke-creatures like Bulbasaur, Jigglypuff and Charmander. To non-fans, these names just sound like gibberish.

The team at Riverside thought this split could be used to test how memories go from short-term to long-term storage in the brain.

Short-term memory is stuff currently in your brain you may soon forget like a phone number you just looked up. Long-term memory is information you can recall long after you learned it like your own phone number.

Researcher Weiwei Zhang said subjects familiar with the classic Pokemon characters essentially have a lot of information stored in their long-term memory.

He wanted to see if this would help them memorize information about newer Pokemon characters.

His team tested how fans and non-fans memorized unfamiliar Pokemon characters. They found that subjects with prior knowledge of the game did better learning the new information.

"They are able to remember more of them," Zhang noted. "So there is a strong relationship between the expertise and short-term memory."

Zhang said this suggests a person's ability to hold something in short-term memory is influenced by how much knowledge of that topic they have in their long-term memory.

Specifically, he thinks long-term memory familiarity helps the brain encode new but related information faster. His team is working on further studies to tease out how this process works. 

These findings may seem intuitive, but they have real world implications, Zhang explained.

For instance, it could mean students who brush up on the format of a big test, like the SATs, might do better when actually taking the test since they'll be more efficient with their short-term memory.

It could also apply to people hoping to make the most of a doctor's appointment. By learning more about their health conditions before the visit, people may retain more detail from their talk with the doctor. 

Zhang hopes to continue this research, but he said the recent success of the mobile game Pokemon Go is making it harder for his lab to find test subjects who aren't familiar with the characters.

"It's making our life difficult!" he laughed.

It might be time for his team to find another, slightly obscure millennial passion to use in his research. Game of Thrones characters perhaps?