The trajectory of thought: Heavy-tailed distributions in memory foraging promote efficiency

K. Jakob Patten, Katharine Greer, Aaron D. Likens, Eric L. Amazeen, Polemnia G. Amazeen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Scopus citations


Free-recall tasks suggest human memory foraging may follow a heavy-tailed distribution, such as a Lévy flight, patch foraging, or area-restricted search – walk procedures that are common in other activities of cognitive agents, such as food foraging in both animals and humans. To date, research merely equates memory foraging with hunting in the physical world based on similarities in statistical structure. The current work supports that memory foraging follows a heavy-tailed distribution by using categories with quantitative distances between each item: countries, which have physical distances, and animals, from which cognitive distances can be derived using a multidimensional scaling (MDS) procedure. Likewise, inter-item lag times follow a heavy-tailed distribution. The current work also demonstrates that inter-item distances and times are positively correlated, suggesting the organization of items in memory may be akin to the organization of a physical landscape. Finally, both studies show that participants’ original, heavy-tailed lists of countries and animal names produce shorter overall distances traveled than random selection. Human memory foraging follows the same pattern as foraging in the natural world – perhaps because exposure to ecological settings informs our inner cognitive experience – leading to a processing and retrieval time benefit.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)772-787
Number of pages16
JournalMemory and Cognition
Issue number5
StatePublished - Jul 1 2020


  • Area-restricted search
  • Foraging
  • Heavy-tailed distribution
  • Lévy distribution
  • Memory retrieval
  • Patch foraging

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)


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