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Clenching Your Fist to Boost Your Memory?

Hand-to-brain link may spur mind activity, study suggests

WEDNESDAY, April 24, 2013 (HealthDay News) -- What if you could "clench" your memory along with your fist? It might be possible, according to a new study.

The research suggests people could improve their ability to memorize things -- a grocery list, for example -- by clenching their hands. For right-handed people, the best results appear by making a right fist when learning something and then switching to making a left fist when trying to remember it.

The findings aren't definitive. Researchers looked at a small group of people -- mostly young -- and only examined how they remembered lists of words. Left-handers weren't included, and those who performed the best didn't do much better than those who didn't clench their hands at all.

Even so, the findings raise provocative questions about how body parts may be linked to the brain. The findings suggest "we can change the way that our brain functions very easily sometimes, and we can do this in ways that benefit us," said study lead author Ruth Propper, an associate professor of psychology at Montclair State University, in Montclair, N.J.

At first glance, a person's hands may seem to have nothing to do with memory. However, previous research has shown that hand-clenching stimulates the brain, Propper said, in a "cross-wired" fashion. Make a fist with your right hand and the left side of your brain will light up with activity in a brain scan -- and the reverse is also true.

In the new study, researchers examined 50 people with an average age of 23 who were told to try to memorize lists of 36 words each. During some of the experiments, participants tightly squeezed a pink rubber ball two times for 45 seconds before reading the list, before trying to remember the list, or both.

Those who clenched their right fist (when learning the words) and then their left (when recalling the words) did a better job of remembering words -- an average of 10.1 words -- than others who clenched their hands. The group that scored the worst among all the groups -- an average of 5.7 words -- clenched their left hands both times.

The right-then-left fist-clenchers scored slightly better than those who didn't clench their fists at all (10.1 versus 8.6 words), but the researchers report this difference wasn't found to be statistically significant.

What might be going on? Bruce Crosson, a professor of neurology at the University of Florida, Gainesville, said it may have something to do with how the brain processes people's decisions to move body parts such as their hands.

If you're moving your hands, he said, you typically need to be focusing on what you want to do. "For example, if you intend to pour a cup of coffee, you have to pay attention to where the coffee cup is," he said. But if you're not performing a specific task with your hands, moving them may still activate parts of the brain that require attention, he said.

Study lead author Propper said she suspects that whether a person was right- or left-handed would play a role in hand-clenching and memory, but the study only examined right-handers.

She said the study results are strong enough to warrant advising people to clench their fists -- right when learning, then left when remembering -- in daily life. "If you're trying to remember where you parked your car, clench your right hand when you park and your left hand when you're trying to find it," she suggested.

Future research will examine whether using other body parts, such as feet, affect memory, Propper said. And researchers also want to know if simply tapping a hand would make a difference, she added.

The study appears in the April issue of the journal PLoS ONE.

More information

For more about the brain, check the Whole Brain Atlas at Harvard University.

SOURCES: Ruth Propper, Ph.D., associate professor, psychology, and director, Cerebral Lateralization Laboratory, Montclair State University, Montclair, N.J.; Bruce Crosson, Ph.D., professor, neurology, University of Florida, Gainesville; April 2013 PLoS ONE
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