Want to Hold On to a Memory? Make a Fist

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Getting a grip — literally — by clenching your right fist before remembering information and your left when you want to remember it can boost your recall, according to the latest study.

This strange trick may work because clenching your hands activates the side of the brain that handles the function — in right-handed people, for instance, the left side of the brain is primarily responsible for encoding information and the right for recalling memory. (If you are left-handed, the opposite applies.)

To test this idea, researchers led by Ruth Propper of Montclair State University in New Jersey studied 50 right-handed college students, mainly women. They were given a list of 36 words to remember and a small pink ball to clench.

One group clenched the ball twice for 45 seconds, each with their right hands before memorizing the words, then did the same with their left hands before writing down as many words as they could recall; another group performed the same task but reversed the order of the fists they made. Two other groups used the same hand each time, one group using the left and the other the right. A final group didn’t clench the ball at all but held it gently in both hands each time.

The group that started with the right hand — and activated the left side of their brains, which helps encode memory, and then clenched their left hand, activating the right side of the brain during recall — performed the best on the memory test.

“The findings suggest that some simple body movements — by temporarily changing the way the brain functions — can improve memory,” Propper said in a statement describing the results, which were published in the journal PLoS One.

Participants recalled an average of 10 words if they clenched their right hand for encoding and left for recall, which was four more than those who used the opposite clenching pattern.

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And as odd as it seems, there is precedent for the role of fist making in cognitive functions; earlier studies found that hand clenching has emotional effects as well. Clenching the right hand was linked to increased anger and happiness, which are both typically processed on the left side of the brain, while clenching the left hand tends to increase sadness or anxiety, since the right side of the brain tends to process these emotions.

But if you’re preparing to make fists while studying for an exam or practicing a speech, the researchers say more work is needed to determine whether this technique would actually be useful. In the meantime, however, it probably couldn’t hurt, although you would have to remember which hand to use for which process.