When you're trying to remember something, they say it helps sometimes to think of the story backward. And when you lose something, people tell you to retrace your steps. 

But until recently, it seems nobody had ever tried to test empirically whether backward movement somehow improves memory--or for that matter, why it would possibly have any impact.

So, a team of researchers from the University of Roehampton in London decided to give it a try. And somewhat to their surprise, they found backward movement indeed correlated positively to increased memory.

Here's what they tested, the results, and where we go from here.

A 'mnemonic time-travel effect'

There were six experiments in total, three in which participants moved forward (or simulated moving forward) while being exposed to new memories, and three in which they moved backward or simulated moving backward.

There was also a control group for each experiment that remained still throughout. 

Participants were either shown a short film, or given a list of words to memorize, or were asked to look at a set of pictures. 

Since we're writing about this, you can probably imagine the consistent results in all six experiments. Memories participants' the improved noticeably movement backward. 

Sorry, I mean: "Backward movement noticeably improved the participants' memories."

"The results demonstrated for the first time that motion-induced past-directed mental time travel improved mnemonic performance for different types of information. We have named this a 'mnemonic time-travel effect,'" Dr. Aleksandar Aksentijevic of the university's Department of Psychology said in a press release.

Stripes on a track suit

The most dynamic experiment involved the participants watching the film, which showed a woman having her handbag stolen. Again, half of the study participants moved forward, while half moved backward. (A control group didn't move at all.)

They were then given three minutes to answer a series of 20 written questions about what they'd seen--things like whether the woman in the video had been wearing gloves, the color of her coat, and whether the man who swipes her bag in the video had stripes on his track suit pants.

Backward walkers got on average two more questions correct, versus the forward walkers and the control group that was told to stay still. Moreover, it didn't matter whether the participants actually moved backward or simulated it. They all showed similar increased recall.

How to use this information

So how does it all work? So far there isn't a well-developed explanation. 

One theory suggests that the human brain somehow organizes time and memories spatially, so experiencing things in a slightly less usual spatial circumstance leads to memories being stored differently.

It's a partial vindication of this idea that time is really expressed via space,' Aksentijevic told The Daily Mail, which also reported on this study. 

The researchers also caution that this is early stage. Others would need to be able to duplicate their findings to increase confidence in them. But it's promising stuff, and perhaps most interesting "as a digital intervention for memory problems in older adults," as one of the other researchers put it.

The study is being published in the January 2019 edition of the journal Cognition.