Memory Palace Intrigue

Jeopardy veteran Monica Thieu digs into the science of trivia greatness

Published March 23, 2024

Besides her multiple Jeopardy! appearances, Monica Thieu has also appeared on ABC's 500 Questions and GSN's Master Minds (pictured, right, with Brooke Burns).

Monica Thieu has been busy since she won the 2012 Jeopardy! College Championship. For one thing, she’s made several subsequent Jeopardy! appearances–including this Thursday, March 28, in the Invitational Tournament. But Dr. Thieu has also managed to combine her love of trivia and her neuroscience work as a postdoctoral researcher in Emory University’s psychology department.

In a new article in the Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, alongside co-authors Dr. Lauren J. Wilkins and Dr. Mariam Aly, Thieu’s research sheds light on what helps trivia players remember so much content. I had the pleasure of talking to her recently on this fascinating work; the following interview is lightly edited for conciseness and clarity.

NH: Monica, I’m so excited to interview you but I have to admit that I don’t know much about neuroscience or memory, so what background do I need for your paper to make sense?

MT: We often think about it as falling into one of two categories. So the first category is episodic memory. This is memory for things that have happened to us, things that we have experienced. A subcategory of this is autobiographical memory, like the memory for things that happen in your life. But in general, episodic memory is what we think of as, like, if I ask you, “What did you have for dinner last Tuesday?,” and you close your eyes, and you can imagine, “Oh, I remember cooking, and then I remember eating. I remember, I was watching Beef again on Netflix,” something like that. It’s memory for things that have happened to you that, critically, is typically associated with re-experiencing things in your mind’s eye.

I got it. So episodic memory is for things that have happened to you. But what’s the other kind?

The other family of things in your long-term memory are semantic memories. This is a memory for facts. So classically, this will be like, “What is the capital of Finland?” It’s memory for information that is typically defined as being devoid of context. And so in the olden days, it was very much believed that episodic memory and semantic memory were two totally separate things. So, like, one system for remembering the things that happened to you in your life, and then a separate system for building up context, like dictionary [and] encyclopedia-type information. But people don’t really believe that anymore. As we’ve learned more and more about these things over time, we understand that these systems, while they are often quite separate, they still talk to one another.

And so a lot of the really interesting memory research now, is research on these edge cases where episodic and semantic memory actually interact and talk to one another. One area where people study that is using “special memory populations,” that’s people whose memory is not normal, like memory champions for example. So these are people who are trained to look at a shuffled deck of cards for like 15 seconds, and memorize the entire order of 52 cards or more. 

People who are really good at that often say that they’re using techniques like the “memory palace” to help their episodic memory. The way that it works is that you imagine yourself walking through a space that you know really well, and you create essentially a fake memory of yourself walking through the space. So for example, I walk in through the door, and I see, like, a big red umbrella, and that’s associated with the seven of diamonds or something. And then I create this experience of walking through a space, and this fake memory, and I use this fake memory that draws on systems of remembering what things look like and where things are. Our episodic memory is really good at that, better than just memorizing the information of the order of the stack of cards.

I’m starting to see how this could relate to trivia, because people do have these Slumdog Millionaire-type moments. It happened to me this morning when I was playing LearnedLeague. I had been thinking about interviewing you, and I was like, I know this, and I know why I know this, and I can remember where and how I learned this. And then I built that mental picture … like, I’m in the room, where I learned this at the time, wearing these specific clothes …

So, that particular experience is something that seems to be really common among people who are good at trivia, but markedly less common for people who are not good at trivia. And the key here is the trivia. Experts don’t seem to have better memories across the board. So it’s not that they’re “just smarter,” or just have more memory capacity. It seems anecdotally like there’s this interaction that when trivia people remember facts, they also remember learning the fact, and they remember these details of learning facts that have all the hallmarks of episodic memory.

So we kind of thought, can we build a study that can measure the degree to which, when someone is remembering a trivia fact, that they also remember the who, what, when, where details? What we can say from our research is that if you’re the kind of person for whom this experience happens more, that means that you’re also now someone who is either more likely to encode those memories in the first place, or better at pulling them out of your memory and retrieving them. One thing that we did do very specifically in our study was to teach people new facts so we weren’t testing prior knowledge. 

Tell me more about the design of the research. And since we’re talking to a trivia audience, I have to ask how you found a bunch of game-show champions and people to participate?

Well, we recruited on the LearnedLeague message boards, and trivia folks were actually really excited to participate in a research study. I did have some of my Jeopardy! All-Stars that helped with the pilot, like Alan Lin for example. But as far as recruiting the experts, I posted on the forum, and then in our screening. I asked people to report what rundle they played in. (Editor’s note: LearnedLeague competitors are assigned to a promotion-and-relegation ladder, as in European football leagues.) And I used their rundle assignment as a measure of people’s initial trivia skill, because we were also collecting people’s scores on a mock-up version of the Jeopardy! audition test.

I went onto Andy Saunders’s archives [along with] my research assistant, [and then] Lauren–the middle author of the paper–and I pulled off a bunch of old audition tests, transcribed the questions, and then picked a smattering of them that didn’t skew toward history or pop culture. So every single participant did a 50-question test, very similar in format to the Jeopardy! audition test.

And statistically, we knew that we could not use people’s scores on that test to decide who got to do the study. But I did use people’s rundle assignments. In recruitment, we got too many people in A and B rundles signing up really early, because those are people who read the forums. And then I updated the post and said, “Sorry to everyone who’s in A and B, we already have too many of you. But if you’re in C, D, and E,  you’re still welcome to sign up.” So that’s how we got a broader sample.

Okay, so even the people who are the “non-experts” in this study are trivia-interested. So everybody in the study is people that play in an online league, every day, at a pretty high level. 

MT:  Exactly. We wanted to make sure that everyone was equally motivated, equally interested in trivia. So you couldn’t just say some people are just trying harder in the research study, but you also get a range of skill levels. So it’s kind of perfect.

So you have people “walk” through this virtual museum exhibit, and you know they’re paying attention to the things, and then they’re tested after the fact. And what you find is that if they’re able to recall more details about the museum, like photos they saw, they’re also more likely to remember the facts you’re asking about.  I wonder how you feel about the experiment being virtual as opposed to, if you had done it in an IRL museum? My thought about that would be that you’re giving them even more things to contribute to their episodic memory if they’re doing it in real life because there’s more simulation. So there’s smells. There’s tactile information. There’s just more input that they can sort-of cling to if they’re trying to recall, right?

Yeah, 100 percent. The richer you can make the encoding experience, the richer the memory ends up being, and so I feel fairly strongly that everyone’s memory would be a little bit better if we’d done it in a physical museum. 

Do you think people also sometimes get stronger at that episodic memory because they have a memory of being wrong about a semantic thing? Like, everyone remembers the thing that they messed up? Here at Geeks Who Drink, back in the day, we for a while we asked about the song “Uptown Funk” really often. And it’s like a trope for people that play Geeks that you just can’t say Bruno Mars–

It’s Mark Ronson, right?

Amazing, yes it is! But I think everyone now remembers that because they have the memory of the feeling of being wrong about it. 

Right? So now, your semantic memory being wrong about that song, then becomes something that’s episodic. And we know very well that people learn from reward. But we also learn very much from punishment. And so in the case of rich, semantic, episodic memories, I think it’s the two things together. The emotional charge of getting something wrong is often strong enough to boost the memory. Generally, emotion would improve memory for trivia facts more, but whether it’s specifically the negative valence of having gotten a trivia question wrong in some really high-stakes contexts, maybe. So that also needs to be studied in the future!

You could just torture people with the questions that they got wrong on game shows! One more question: What’s your top tip for casual trivia players,  based on what you have learned in this study? Like, is there one thing people should keep in mind, or pay attention to?

I believe, based on what we know from other types of memory that, when you’re learning trivia information, the richer the context, the better you are at learning the information. So I would say, if you ever have a choice between reading the Wikipedia page about a movie versus going to the actual movie, or, like, reading a book about the topic versus going to see a museum for the thing… go do the thing itself, and have as rich of an experience as you can, and that gives you more hooks to remember the information.

I think that’s really really good advice! And similar to language learning, which I hadn’t thought of.

Yeah. So learn trivia immersively!

And then, finally, I know you want to get a brain scan of Ken Jennings someday, right? What’s the most interesting question about a super trivia brain? Like, if you could brain-scan Ken, what is the thing that you’d wanna know?

Our results in this study make us think about the hippocampus, which is a region that is traditionally associated with episodic memory. Whereas another part of the brain, the anterior temporal lobe, that’s the region that is often associated with semantic information. So one thing we wonder is whether trivia experts might have, for example, greater structural connectivity. Maybe they could have more white-matter connections between these two regions, or greater functional connectivity. Maybe these regions are more in sync when people are learning or remembering things. So I would just love to see if that is actually the case!

We’ll remind you down here too: You can see Monica Thieu on the Jeopardy! Invitational Tournament this Thursday, March 28.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated the name of Alan Lin.