Day #51 – The Brain is Freaky! How Trivia Night is Good for Cognition

Anyone who knows me is aware that I love a good night of Pub Trivia. My wife and I currently frequent two game nights on Tuesday and Thursday. And we do reasonably well. We are Routinely finishing “in the money” and winning gift cards. Last week we finished second and were rewarded with $30 and a sense of accomplishment. My favorite game is at this local pub called World of Beer. To say I am a regular is an understatement. Let’s say I am the Norm Peterson (Norm from Cheers) of WOB. But my favorite night is Thursday, when I can play trivia. The host, Charlie, is good at developing challenging questions. His questions are as random as they can get and are often a result of whatever he was watching or thinking about that week. They can often be strung together via unexpected associations. For example, there was a question to name the capital of North Dakota (Bismarck) and Marcel Theo Hall’s stage name (Biz Markie). Get it, from Bismarck to Biz Markie. By the way, still killing myself for missing the Biz question; we said Usher like fools.

But this is not about my love for trivia but more so my fascination in how I remember seemingly unrelated information and string it together to, more often than not, find the correct answer. Here are two examples. This past week, I nailed two questions, and it was not because I knew the answer, but I found a randomly accessed memory to connect the dots.

The first question was to place four Tom Hanks movies in chronological order. They were Green Mile, Philadelphia, Saving Private Ryan, and Apollo 13. Here is how I got these in order. I remember Philadelphia was in 1993 because I purchased the soundtrack to the movie while still in college. And then I knew Green Mile was 1999 because it was listed as one of the best movies that year in an article on how 1999 may be the best year for movies ever. That left Saving Private Ryan and Apollo 13. I knew both had been made in the 1990s but not sure of their order. Then I remembered that Apollo 13 was released in 1995 because I had just moved to Illinois for grad school. This bizarre commercial for an Apollo-themed value meal at Hardee’s restaurant featured two cast member POGS with the purchase of a meal. And all I could think when watching that commercial was, who wants a POG of Bill Paxton or Kevin Bacon in a spacesuit?

Just so bizarre that some random commercial was the touchpoint. That left Saving Private Ryan in third place. The second question was which Jedi used a purple lightsaber. This answer was a total guess, but I guessed Mace Windu played by Samuel L. Jackson. Here is why. When that movie came out in the early 2000s, this cheeky post went around in email chains (remember them?) that listed ten lines Mace Windu would say when the Star Wars movie was released. And I remember there being a line, “Hand me my lightsaber… it’s the one that says, “Bad Mother F#%ker.” An homage to his Jules character in Pulp Fiction. And since I had no other ideas, I just assumed Samuel L. Jackson would be the guy who wanted a purple lightsaber.

And that is what freaks me out a bit, how these seemingly unconnected moments in my life that I have not considered in decades would be accessed by my brain to find the correct answer to a pub trivia question. So I did a little digging and found that the brain connection with trivia or other cognitive gymnastics is a real thing and can help you stay healthy and mentally sharp. According to researchers at UCLA, trivia is like cross-training for your brain. It creates cross brain links that would not have made otherwise, and this increases creativity, memory, and may help stave off cognitive decline as we age.

It also allows us to use the different memory skills we all have. Two major types of memories can help in any trivia game. The first and often most used in many cases is what is called Semantic Memory. Semantic memory is just stuff you know without any need to engage in mental gymnastics. You know an apple is an apple or that Dan Marino was the QB of the Miami Dolphins because it is a common knowledge thing that you know. Now, these items can vary from person to person, but it’s the collection of “stuff you know.” Then there is what is called Episodic Memory. And this is the more complex memory. These memories are tied to time, place, manner of the memory, like what song was number one when I got married or the feeling you had after failing that chemistry test in 11th grade. These memories usually need a stimulus and then an ability to make the connections required to complete the thought process and extract the information. These moments are encoded into the brain, and like a combo lock, the correct code or question can unlock that memory. But many times, the connections are so random they become fascinating.
One other thought. Kids who grew up in the military like myself and moved a lot can often complete these memory tasks with better accuracy than other kids. While growing up in the military offers many challenges, the ability to relate certain moments in one’s life to important dates, places, or events can be more readily accessed because there are mile markers. I categorize dates and famous pop culture moments into segments. During my childhood, I moved eight times. This gave me distinct eras to form a mental library to pull these randomly connected bits of information.

Playing trivia and other mind games offers quite a few advantages besides a gift card and a couple of pints with friends. It can be a way to keep our brains active and our memories fresh.

Published by mprest13

I am a professional at the University of Central Florida who likes entertainment, politics and sports.

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