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A new study finds the memory systems that give trivia champions an edge


I'll take episodic semantic linkage for $1,000, please, Ken. What makes some people "Jeopardy!" champions and others unable to remember, for example, when the first U.S. dollar was printed? What is the subject of our next interview? Monica Thieu is a multi-time "Jeopardy!" contestant and co-author, along with Lauren Wilkins and Mariam Aly, of a new study looking at how links between two memory systems may give trivia experts an edge. Monica Thieu joins me now. Hi there.


GONYEA: OK, let's start with a quiz - a quick one. When was the first U.S. dollar printed?

THIEU: Oh, gosh. Great choice of a question that I don't actually know the answer to.

GONYEA: 1862.

THIEU: Ah, yeah.

GONYEA: (Laughter).

THIEU: That's one of those questions where you think the reason you're asking this is because the answer is not what you think it is. And so you got to say something.

GONYEA: So what got you interested in studying trivia and memory?

THIEU: What it really started was I really wanted to have a research study where I could convince Ken Jennings to come and get his brain scanned. And that's still hasn't happened yet. So the opportunity is still out there. But as I started learning more about how memory works from the sort of technical, cognitive psychology perspective, I started wondering, hey, we define memory often as these two mostly separate systems - episodic memory, which is like our memory for things that happen to us in the world that often comes with when you close your eyes, in your mind's eye, and you think about, you know, getting lunch with a friend last week. You can imagine who you were with, the taste of the food, maybe the weather, if you were sitting outside on the patio. And then there's semantic memory, which is our memory for facts and knowledge about the world - for example, who was printed on the first dollar bill.

And so we became curious, because when I was talking to other trivia folks that I met through "Jeopardy!" and other trivia activities of, like, there's got to be something special about their memories, and I suppose my memory as well. Could it be possible that the way that we remember this kind of information is by sort of binding these two memory systems together, that maybe remembering those details about how and when we learned some facts actually helps that information stick for later.

GONYEA: One of the studies that you have done, you had participants look at museum exhibits.

THIEU: Yes, absolutely. So we tried to pick exhibits on topics that people would not hopefully know the fact already. So, for example, you might be sitting and on your computer screen, you'll see a picture of, let's say like a little round, like, circular armpit guard that goes on a piece of armor, and you'll hear an audio narrator describing to you the history of this particular round armpit guard, which happens to be called a besagew, I believe. And we also show them, you know, a particular - like, this museum is in this background, and it's all amber-colored, or this museum has this other background with this other font design, and it's all cobalt-colored, so that we could study not only do you remember the fact that you learned in this museum exhibit, but did you see it in the amber museum or the cobalt museum, so that we can get those details about not only what did you learn, but what else did you see and experience while you were learning it?

GONYEA: And then what do you see happening as you play that out?

THIEU: What we found is that trivia experts, when they picked, for example, the correct armpit guard, or they picked the correct museum that they saw the armpit guard in, they were also then more likely to remember the name of the armpit guard itself. Whereas for trivia non-experts, their memory was basically equally as good for which exhibit picture they saw, but it didn't seem to help them remember the facts.

GONYEA: Say I want to get better at remembering or recalling something like the name of the Wright Brothers' airplane. How would you go about helping me recall that?

THIEU: Yeah. One thing I do want to say is that while we found this relationship between people who are sort of already naturally good at trivia, we still don't know if training people to do this will help them. I personally believe that it will, but we'd have to do another study to see. But what we think is that learning new facts in really rich and interesting contexts is going to give you more of those hooks for other parts of your episodic memory that will help that semantic information stick better.

GONYEA: It sounds like you're telling us to live in the world and experience things.

THIEU: Absolutely. If you can go, you know, on a trip to D.C., go to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, eat something really interesting after you haven't eaten before, really trying to make that memory for the facts as rich as possible. I personally think those are going to stick better, but that's also me, the human, not necessarily me, the scientist.

GONYEA: Monica Thieu is co-author, along with Mariam Aly and Lauren Wilkins, of a new study in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin and Review. Thank you very much for talking to us.

THIEU: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.