The Hidden Brain

Our unconscious biases.

Thinking About Your Ancestors Can Boost Your Mental Performance

How people in our past help us every day.

Why do people spend decades tracing their lineages? Thinking about one's ancestors provides comfort, improves one's ability to deal with challenges and actually boosts cognitive performance, new research shows.

In a simple experiment, researchers asked people to think about their ancestors (or something else) and then measured their beliefs about their own performance on several cognitive tests. People who had been made to think about their ancestors expected to do better on the tests.

But did they actually do better? Yes. Researchers Peter Fischer, Anne Sauer, Claudia Vogrincic and Silke Weisweiler found that people who had recently thought about their ancestors actually did better on cognitive tests of intelligence than people who had been made to think of other things.

In a recent puzzle posted on The Hidden Brain's Facebook page, where all puzzles get posted first, I asked

You would have been more likely to solve this puzzle if I had first asked you to
A) Think about a friend
B) Draw a family tree
C) Remember what was in your last shopping list
D) None of the above

The correct answer is B.

The researchers hypothesized, in a piece they published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, that thinking about one's ancestors increases our sense of control over everyday activities. So the next time someone asks you to solve a puzzle or tackle a difficult test, spend a moment thinking about your great-grandmother first!

 

Shankar Vedantam is a science reporter with National Public Radio and a Nieman fellow at Harvard University.

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