Pokémon are more than just for playing — they can also teach us about how the brain works.

Researchers from the University of California, Riverside, used characters from the Pokémon video and card games to test a link between long-term and short-term memory, finding that the former boosts the latter. According to a study in Memory & Cognition, people who were familiar with characters created in the late 1990s — now stored in their long-term memory — were able to recall more details about Pokémon characters in a test of their short-term memory. The researchers say this shows that familiarity with a subject is linked to how much information our brains can store in the short-term.

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The short-term memory test involved showing people, mostly college students, Pokémon characters from the game’s “first-generation” as well as more recent ones, like those that appear in the popular mobile game Pokémon GO. When asked for information afterward about what they had seen, those who had a level of familiarity with the earlier characters were able to “recall more first-generation Pokémon characters that they were more familiar with than recent-generation Pokémon characters that they were less familiar with,” according to the study. “Critically, these effects were absent in participants who were unfamiliar with first-generation Pokémon.”

pokemon-memory A memory test involving Pokémon has taught us more about how the brain works. Credit: UC Riverside

The goal of the study was to find out if long-term memory could supplement or widen the small capacity of our brain’s working memory function, which keeps currently necessary information at a place of easy access for a short period of time. Results were positive on that front: UC Riverside said in a statement that the tests suggest the more familiar people are with a topic, the more they remember and learn new information about it. It shows “a strong link between prior familiarity in long-term memory and visual short-term memory storage capacity.” Researcher Weiwei Zhang, a psychology professor at Riverside, called it “another example of ‘practice makes perfect.’”

But the findings go deeper than playing Pokémon. “These findings could have further implications in applied settings such as classroom learning,” Zhang said. “For example, those preparation courses for MCAT or SAT may have familiarized their students with the testing procedure and the scope of assessments such that the students could perform better simply because they had better working memory for the testing materials.”

Source: Xie W and Zhang W. Familiarity increases the number of remembered Pokémon in visual short-term memory. Memory & Cognition. 2016.

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