People with expert knowledge in a subject have better memories, study finds

The old adage “birds of a feather flock together” has officially been put to the test. A new study from Canadian researchers finds that expert knowledge in a subject — like bird watching — helps us memorize new information.

Having adept knowledge provides a mental organization structure, or what experts call “scaffolding.” Scientists say this lets us keep new items that we want to learn distinct from each other and reduces confusion between similar items.

“Unlike memory functions that tend to decrease with age, expert knowledge often continues to accumulate as we get older. This makes it an area of strength in older adults that we may be able to harness to mitigate age-related memory decline and improve quality of life for this group,” says Dr. Erik Wing, study lead author and postdoctoral fellow at Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute, in a statement.

To conduct this study, Baycrest researchers examined memory in expert birdwatchers they recruited from the Toronto Ornithological Club and Toronto Field Naturalists. They also used gardening, fishing, and hiking experts as a control group.

Researchers wanted to analyze how knowledge changes mental organization. Both groups were shown sets of bird images and asked to arrange them visually on the screen, according to perceived similarity. The bird experts mostly grouped the animals based on specific features, like their beak or tail. In contrast, the control group mainly based their birds on more superficial features, like color.

The participants’ memory was tested next. Each participant was first shown a series of bird photographs. Researchers then revealed a second series of photos to participants, containing both new and old birds. The participants were asked to indicate whether or not they had already seen each bird in the first series of photographs.

Those who had grouped the birds based on specific features did better in the memory task than those who based the birds on color. The difference in memory was also seen between the bird experts themselves, as those who grouped the birds superficially had worse memory than those who did not. Researchers say their findings suggest “that a higher degree of expertise and knowledge organizations supports memory.”

“Having more years of education, more areas of interest and more hobbies seems to reduce dementia risk and support memory in old age,” explains study senior author Dr. Asaf Gilboa, senior scientist at the institute and associate professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. “Our results suggest that this may be partly because the more background knowledge you have, the better you are at learning and retaining new information by placing that information in the scaffolding of your existing knowledge.”

Researchers hope their findings can mitigate age-related memory decline and improve quality of life for older adults.

The study was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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