Jeopardy! Winner Reveals Entwined Memory Systems Make a Trivia Champion

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While watching trivia game shows such as Jeopardy!, you might be amazed by contestants’ quick and impressive ability to ring in with correct answers time and time again. A new study led by a Jeopardy! champion—enlisting the help of other Jeopardy! contestants and trivia experts—suggests that this extraordinary trivia prowess may be strengthened by links between two memory systems.

Monica Thieu, a multitime Jeopardy! contestant, had been itching to study the psychology of trivia ever since she won the Jeopardy! College Championship in 2012. Years later as a graduate student she began to tackle this question with collaborators, using varied methods to assess the recall of obscure facts in participants of varying trivia skill levels. She and her colleagues found that people with greater trivia expertise were more likely to remember new facts in general, and they were more likely to remember those facts when they also could recall the context for where they first learned them—a trend not seen in those with lesser trivia abilities. The findings were published on February 12 in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.

Thieu had noticed an “anecdotal trend,” she says, when she returned to the Jeopardy! stage for the third time for the 2019 Jeopardy! All-Star Games. “Many of the Jeopardy! contestants I was talking to were able to report the ‘who, what, when, where and sometimes how’ of how they originally learned different facts,” says Thieu, now a postdoctoral researcher in psychology at Emory University. She later consulted with other contestants on the show, including 13-consecutive-game-winner Matt Jackson and all-time regular-season highest prize winner Ken Jennings, to see if this rang true. One contestant said that they remembered the cover of their history textbook, Thieu recalls, and another noted learning a fact in a movie seen with a friend.

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To dig beyond the anecdotes, Thieu’s team recruited study participants from LearnedLeague, an online trivia community for people of all expertise levels, and gave them a mock Jeopardy! audition test using 50 archived questions. About half of the participants were deemed trivia “experts” if they scored at or above the median 35 out of 50 points—a score value generally assumed to be the official Jeopardy! test’s qualification cutoff point for the chance to audition (though the show’s producers have not publicly released the exact score needed to pass the test). Of the participants, 45 had previously appeared on a game show.

The researchers then created virtual science and history museum exhibits to organically introduce new facts to individuals. The virtual museums featured exhibits on a variety of subjects, such as dinosaurs, gemstone geology and musical instrument history. Each exhibit contained placards that detailed multiple related facts that were unfamiliar to participants, alongside a corresponding photograph of a relevant object. After receiving an audio-guided tour of all the exhibits, participants answered 80 trivia questions based on the facts presented in the museums.

Trivia experts were more likely to remember a new fact correctly, especially when they remembered the photographs associated with the corresponding exhibit and the museum setting that the fact was displayed in. In other words, trivia experts’ memory of setting and context seemed to couple with and augment their recollection of facts.

“Semantic memory” helps us remember facts, and “episodic memory” stores memories of events. The two are classically thought to be separate systems, says Mariam Aly, an assistant professor of psychology at Columbia University and senior author of the new paper. But this study adds to growing evidence in recent years showing that these memory banks may be intimately intertwined.

Linking scenes and sensory information is really good for preserving memory, Thieu says. It’s why tactics such as creating a memory palace—visualizing a place in your mind while attaching different information to various spots within that space—help you remember better. Retaining information about the history of dinosaurs might be hard if you’re just reading a dry textbook passage. But if you’re learning from a display of fossils at a museum while on vacation in New York City, that same information might have greater staying power. “If trivia experts have more binding between these two different systems, that might be one reason they seem to do better,” Thieu says.

These results, however, do not mean that people with better trivia skills have better memory overall, Aly says. On average, trivia experts’ episodic memory was no better than that of nonexperts. But Thieu emphasizes that the way memory systems connect is not a binary in which some people link their episodic and semantic memories and others do not. This ability exists on a spectrum, with trivia experts clustering at one end.

The new study lines up with what we already know about memory recall, but the authors’ question and experimental approach were an interesting way to study real-life learning, says Jen Coane, an associate professor of psychology at Colby College in Maine. One thing to note, she adds, which Thieu’s team did caveat, is that this experiment only tests for relatively short-term memory. Participants took the trivia quiz only half an hour after they went through the virtual exhibits. To draw any concrete conclusions about the connection between episodic and semantic memory in learning, “we should probably look at longer time scales,” Coane says.

Alan Lin—a Los Angeles–based software engineer and six-day Jeopardy! winner in 2017—is personally intrigued by how this might relate to the way people make connections between facts, especially because he doesn’t think his memory is all that remarkable. “I actually think I have a pretty poor episodic memory,” says Lin, who was consulted by the study’s authors for the new research. He doesn’t think his semantic memory is that strong on its own, either. “I don’t think I can memorize 100 digits of pi,” Lin says. But he notes that no fact is an island: Lin’s ability to remember trivia facts is excellent, he says, because he can embed knowledge that he learns into his understanding of that topic and connect it in a “web of context.” This research shows that “there are a lot more fine-grained distinctions to be made between these different forms of memory,” he adds.

The act of learning and recalling trivia facts may seem trivial to some, Thieu says, but it’s actually the exact kind of learning that happens in school. These new findings further support the idea that rich learning experiences help reinforce memory and fact retention beyond the monotony of flashcards and textbooks, she adds.

“All of us who love and enjoy trivia didn’t get into it to do flashcards,” Lin says. “It’s the joy of learning new information and connecting that information with other things we already know and putting that all together into our understanding of the world.”

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