A blog that moves memory findings from the lab to real life!

By: Idil Uner

exploring empirical research on why & how individuals remember differently

“(...) we all have moments sketched in our memories (...) that come flooding back to us when we’re feeling a certain way, a reminder perhaps, of why we are who we are today.”

What is memory?

A few days ago my friends and I were enjoying the comfort of my heated home, leaning on each other trying to perch ourselves on my wooden windowsill; we were reminiscing about our night at Igloofest, an annual outdoor music festival in Montreal. I was laughing (the kind of laugh that comes from your belly and makes your ribs hurt) about how just one foot past the entrance, one wrong step onto a layer of thick yet invisible ice had me wiped out and falling on my back. I reminded them of how our cheeks were in a constant rosy state from the freshness outside, and how much of a twisted joke it was that we had decided to go on an unbearably cold day as it was -30 degrees Celsius with a windchill, which to be fair is nothing unusual for this time of the year. My friends, on the other hand, didn’t seem to recall these details, nor the crackling sound of the fire or the smell of beaver tails, they were instead chatting about how fun it was to be there as a group of friends before graduating, even though it was the type of day we should have done everything in our power to spend as little time outside and as much time inside as humanly possible. So, how is it that we had all experienced the same event, but our narratives and memories were different?

Our lab recently published a paper, ‘A neurocognitive perspective on the different forms and functions of autobiographical memory retrieval’, which explains that the difference in remembering might be reflected in the brain (Sheldon, Fenerci & Gurguryan, 2019). There is one brain region - the hippocampus - that is needed to remember these past autobiographical memories - our past personal experiences, which helps construct memories during retrieval.

There seem to be two strategies for remembering; conceptual (thematic or action details) and perceptual (visual and contextual event) elements. When remembering Igloofest, for example, the conceptual element is that my friends and I had a good time together (supported by the anterior hippocampal activity) while the perceptual element is how cold it was (activating posterior hippocampal activity in the brain).

We have these different strategies for remembering because we use our memories for different purposes. If you want to relive something, for example and as a result experience nostalgia - you will most likely remember very specific details about how you felt, but if you want to remember the past to guide future thinking then you will want to have the overall idea to fit the mold. In terms of decision-making, the paper claims that conceptual remembering is useful to guide ambiguous decisions whereas perceptual remembering is more beneficial for well-structured tasks that have been experienced before.

Essentially, we all have moments sketched in our memories whether we remember them conceptually or perceptually, that come flooding back to us when we’re feeling a certain way, a reminder perhaps, of why we are who we are today. Clearly, memory plays a big role in our lives, though it is often difficult to define. Sure, we could use the dictionary definition but if there is one thing I learned in the Sheldon Memory Lab, it is that memories are much more complex than that.

Citation:

Sheldon, S., Fenerci, C., & Gurguryan, L. (2019). A Neurocognitive Perspective on the Forms and Functions of Autobiographical Memory Retrieval. Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience, 13. doi:10.3389/fnsys.2019.00004


“(…) for a while even many scientists argued that a hierarchy of intellectual abilities existed.”

how Are Memories Different Across Individuals?

Growing up I felt like I had options to pursue sciences, arts and everything in between. Unfortunately, I don’t share this reality with many other women. From a young age girls are often told that it’s okay if they aren’t good at math or any STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) field for that matter, because, well apparently, “girls are bad at math”. But, you see, there is no such thing as a math person or a “math brain”.  

This assumption, is not just widely accepted among everyday people, but for a while even many scientists argued that a hierarchy of intellectual abilities existed. For example, concrete imagistic thought (e.g. focusing more on surroundings and less on what is beyond your viewpoint) was said to be inferior to abstract thought (e.g. ability to think about things that aren’t physically in front of you) . These claims were also used to push political or social agendas in the commonly assumed racial–biological hierarchy, in which white males and “superior” races would be more likely to use abstract thought and women, children, and other races would be more likely to use imagistic thought.

As a supporter of these views, Sir Francis Galton, an English scientist from the Victorian Era, carried out an investigation of mental imagery among a sample of scientists and non-scientists (Brewer & Schommer-Aikins, 2006). Participants were instructed to complete the Breakfast Questionnaire in which they had to recall specific scenes such as that of their breakfast table. Galton found that scientists are most likely to engage in abstract thought and least likely to use concrete images. Although this investigation was innovative in that it was one of the first to examine individual differences for a psychological process and study recollective memory through visual imagery, many have criticized his generalizations.

Over a century later, researchers found contradicting evidence to Galton’s findings, explaining that most scientists do not show deficient mental imagery skills (Brewer & SchommerAikins, 2006). Their results demonstrate that scientists actually show strong visual imagery in recollective memory tasks, similarly to non-scientist undergraduates. The data does suggest there may be some small differences in vividness of visual imagery between scientists and undergraduates, however these differences could easily be due to age differences, to differences in style of reporting internal mental states, or to professional deformity.

The paper further explores how Galton’s findings may be a classic example of theory-ladenness in science, in which prior beliefs (theories) of scientists can have an impact on their perception, attention, interpretation, memory, and communication of their work.

Even though memory differences in, for example, imagery, spatial, perceptual and working memory functions, have been empirically supported and have consequences on functioning (Palombo, Sheldon, & Levine, 2018), generalizations beyond those differences on intellectual abilities can be misleading and do not result in meaningful differences or real-world consequences.

This topic is also quite fitting for today, International Women's Day, a day that serves as a reminder to celebrate each other and what we are capable of doing. I hope this blog post can serve as your reminder and encouragement!

Citation:

Brewer, W. F., & Schommer-Aikins, M. (2006). Scientists Are Not Deficient in Mental Imagery: Galton Revised. Review of General Psychology, 10(2), 130-146. doi:10.1037/1089-2680.10.2.130

Palombo, D., Sheldon, S., & Levine, B. (2018). Individual Differences in Autobiographical Memory. Trends in Cognitive Sciences. doi:10.31234/osf.io/qr4f9


“These findings, that false memories also exist in people who have superior memory indicate that reconstructive processes may actually be crucial to episodic remembering.”

are extreme cases of remembering A Curse or a Blessing in Disguise?

As a Harry Potter fan, Albus Dumbledore - the headmaster of the wizarding school, Hogwarts - always fascinated me. One of my favorite quotes from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was when Dumbledore told Harry, “I sometimes find, and I am sure you know the feeling, that I simply have too many thoughts and memories crammed into my mind”. Although he was referring to the Pensieve which was a magical instrument used by the head teachers to view autobiographical memories, it made me wonder if he was an individual with Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM).

HSAM individuals are people who can remember autobiographical life events in extraordinary detail. I mean, just imagine, for example, if you could remember the day your high school sweetheart broke up with you in extreme detail. Well, individuals with HSAM can do exactly that.

But how do these individuals with HSAM remember? Research has suggested autobiographical memories are constructed as mental images when they are retrieved, which makes them subject to distortion. Does this also happen in HSAM, or do these people recall the past as static photographs?

Researchers have been interested in studying false memory, which is when people think they remember something that happened even though it never actually did, as it shows us that people do construct memories (Loftus, 1997). A recent study looked to see if HSAM have photographic like memories or construct memories, much like regular folk (Patihis, et al. 2013). They found that HSAM participants and controls were both susceptible to false recognition of critical lure words that were not actually presented in an associative word-list task. Furthermore, HSAM participants were equally as likely as controls to mistakenly report they had seen nonexistent footage of a plane crash. These findings, that false memories also exist in people who have superior memory indicate that reconstructive processes may actually be crucial to episodic remembering.

Since individuals with HSAM construct past memories in GREAT detail, and other work has linked past remembering to future imagination - can these individuals also possibly imagine the future as if it has already happened? How does that affect they way they carry out their life?

It seems like having this memory ability would be useful because we rely on memories to not only share stories or learn from past experiences, but also for crucial things like creating a sense of identity. But perhaps individuals with HSAM would beg to differ and wish for their very own magical Pensieve to declutter their minds from the extremely detailed memories they can’t help themselves from remembering.

Citation:

Loftus, Elizabeth F. “Creating False Memories.” Scientific American, vol. 277, no. 3, 1997, pp. 70–75., doi:10.1038/scientificamerican0997-70.

Patihis, L., et al. “False Memories in Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory Individuals.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 110, no. 52, 2013, pp. 20947–20952., doi:10.1073/pnas.1314373110.


“(…) for the purposes of efficiency, memory processes likely latch onto gist information preferentially and selectively prune out more inconsequential information over time, making recollections less detailed.”

Different ways of remembering related to recalling different details

This holiday season we took a trip to Portugal, and let me tell you, the country that’s famous for Port Wine, Cristiano Ronaldo, Pastéis de Nata and Azulejos did not disappoint. As we were strolling through the Belém district in Lisbon the pitter patter from the raindrops hitting the ground kept getting louder, so we decided to seek refuge at the modern and contemporary art museum, Museu Coleção Berardo. We probably spent hours in there and I was captivated by all the artwork. The collections transitioned from Impressionism to Abstract and Cubism, followed by Surrealism (and much, much more). After leaving the museum I forced my little brother to listen to me go on excitedly and in painstaking detail about my favourite artwork by Marcel Duchamp. However, what struck me is that the other day, when I was trying to tell my best friend (who studies Art History) about the same painting, I didn’t recall much about the fine details of the painting itself anymore. Sure, I still remember the painting quite generally, but the details appear fuzzy and foggy in my mind...why did this happen?

Remembering is a rich experience, where different types of information are pulled from memory. Sekeres, et al. (2016) categorized these different types of information as perceptual detail and central themes, which they suggested may be forgotten at different rates. In fact, for the purposes of efficiency, memory processes likely latch onto gist information preferentially and selectively prune out more inconsequential information over time, making recollections less detailed.

Researchers asked participants to recall memory for film clips at varying delays ranging from several minutes to a full week afterwards, and found that as more time passes, we experience a faster rate and greater degree loss of “peripheral” details than “central” theme information from episodic memories (Sekeres, et al., 2016).

Does this mean that I won’t ever remember the details of Duchamp’s artwork because of a peripheral permanent memory storage deficit?

Actually, I would be able to retrieve some peripheral details given an appropriately cued reminder just prior to retrieval. Interestingly, however, the central elements, or gist, of my memory of Duchamp’s artwork although not susceptible to as much of a memory decline would also not be susceptible to enhancement through cueing that is present with perceptual elements.

Researchers would also suggest that because I had actively retrieved the memory by telling my brother about the artwork right when we left the museum, I unknowingly protected against the loss of both central and peripheral details, promoting the retrieval of both types of information over time. However, despite the retention of both types of detail, I still feel like I am not able to recall as many peripheral details to my best friend now. Like me, participants in the study rated their memories of the video clips as weaker across the delays which suggests that, subjectively, people felt they were forgetting information, despite the fact that they recalled an equivalent number of central and peripheral details at all time points. So I may not be able to recall an equal number of central and peripheral details about Duchamp’s artwork now, but I may not have lost as much of the peripheral details as I had thought.

Although we can’t travel back through time (as much as sometimes I wish we could), the Museu Coleção Berardo took me on a journey of art through the 20th century and into the 21st. I may not be able to remember all the details of that day in the museum, nor all the details of my favourite painting, but I now realize the effectiveness of cueing with reminders to reinstate memory details, and the role of retrieval in preventing forgetting.

Far from signifying failure, forgetting may be a strategy the brain uses in processing incoming information… and that being said, we probably don’t forget as much detail as we think we do!

Citation:

Sekeres, M. J., Bonasia, K., St-Laurent, M., Pishdadian, S., Winocur, G., Grady, C., & Moscovitch, M. (2016). Recovering and preventing loss of detailed memory: Differential rates of forgetting for detail types in episodic memory. Learning & Memory, 23(2), 72-82. jkljkdoi:10.1101/lm.039057.115


“(…) older adults may be at a disadvantage because of their greater reliance on gist-based approach.”

with age differences in remembering, does wisdom really come with age?

In fifth grade I was given the opportunity to take part in community service projects with a group of other students. My group decided to mostly focus on an outreach program at an ‘Altenheim’ (retirement home) that aims to encourage mental and physical well-being while preventing social isolation. This was an incredibly formative experience for me because it was one of the first times I was face-to-face with the harsh realities of life (and death). Moreover, it was here where my ten year old self first began to understand that beyond Dementia, cognitive decline and memory loss as one ages is inevitable. I specifically remember noticing how a lot of memories my elderly friends shared were highly abstracted representations of the past.

Researchers were interested in exploring older adults’ reliance on abstract, gist-based memory by investigating consumer behaviour in younger and older adults (Flores, Hargis, Mcgillivray, Friedman, & Castel, 2016). They wanted to see whether younger or older adults were better at comparing prices of two similar grocery items in order to find the “better buy” by relying on their memory. Participants studied a list of grocery items along with their prices and were instructed to recall the price of two items and identify the “better buy”. In Experiment 1, the items were shown consecutively on the list, whereas in Experiment 2, the items in question were separated by intervening items, meaning greater memory demands were involved. Age-related differences for choosing the “better buy” were only significant in Experiment 2, suggesting that consecutive items can be easily grouped and compared by using gist-based information, but that these abilities are impaired over a greater period of time in older adults.

This study is particularly interesting because the researchers were able to examine gist-based memory for item-price pairings in a situation that simulates real-life demands. However, beyond the grocery store, information that may benefit from being grouped and compared, such as different life insurance prices, may be presented days apart, meaning older adults may be at a disadvantage because of their greater reliance on gist-based approach. This is when a gist-based approach to memory, rather than attention to smaller details, may be more problematic and therefore may also lead older adults to struggle more when making a decision. 

The impacts of age changes to cognition is especially interesting as although the population of elderly people in the world and their share of personal wealth is increasing ("Ageing", 2017) there is little knowledge and research on how this aging population can better make financial and health decisions to increase their welfare. Gamble et al. (2017) provides evidence that older adults do not recognize that their decrease in cognition is associated with a decrease in financial literacy. Although their general self-confidence was found to significantly decrease, their confidence in their ability to manage their own finances and their confidence in their financial knowledge was not found to decrease. Thus, older adults may not recognize, and may even be reluctant to admit to this decline in their financial capabilities, which can cause many issues when it comes to effectively managing their finances especially with the rise of modern financial literacy needs with FinTech, for example.

It is extremely important to help and look out for elderly people especially with compassion and love. I still have fond memories of my ten year old self eating apple streusel cake with the elderly and listening to their wise words in the charming baroque elderly home on the banks of the River Rhine.

Citation:

Ageing. (2017). Retrieved from http://www.un.org/en/sections/issues-depth/ageing/

Flores, C. C., Hargis, M. B., Mcgillivray, S., Friedman, M. C., & Castel, A. D. (2016). Gist-based memory for prices and “better buys” in younger and older adults. Memory, 25(4), 565-573. doi:10.1080/09658211.2016.1197944

Gamble, K. J., Boyle, P., Yu, L., & Bennett, D. (2017). Challenges for Financial Decision Making at Older Ages. Oxford Scholarship Online. doi:10.1093/oso/9780198808039.003.0003


“(…) flexibility in memory processes is a consequence of memory reconstruction.”

why we remember: is forgetting necessary for remembering?

We are constantly bombarded with an abundance of information on current events. With all this information it is really difficult to know what we need to remember and what we can forget. Lately, I’ve noticed more of my friends on social media tweeting or sharing bitesize news, the kind that, you know, many people prefer consuming over traditional press because of how easily digestible, entertaining and instant it is, especially in our fast-moving world. This information that we consume in bitesize form tends to omit many details and provides more general information, which some would argue is why we are able to absorb and retain as much information on current events as we do.  

Richards and Frankland (2017) investigated whether omitting or forgetting (transience) certain details is actually an adaptive function of remembering (persistence). They also discuss how the transition over time from precise memories to more general memories have been observed in different experiments. They review the fundamental functions of memory and argue that persistence exists to optimize decision-making and not to remember as accurately and exhaustively as possible across long periods of time. In order to make optimal decisions, memory is adaptively flexible allowing for transience, by reducing the impact of irrelevant and outdated information on decision-making guided by memory. Therefore, flexibility in memory processes is a consequence of memory reconstruction. Through combining persistence and transience individuals exhibit this flexible behavior and optimal decision-making. 

So if forgetting certain details is crucial for remembering, should we be concerned that we are consuming more bitesize news? Perhaps the rise of bitesize news wouldn’t be an issue if fake news - deliberate spreading of misinformation, wasn’t on the rise either. Bitesize information is very available for us to retrieve and it becomes easy to think that current events reported in this way are not just accurate but also occur frequently. The availability bias describes how humans are biased to to think that examples of things that come readily to mind are more representative than is actually the case. Tversky and Kahneman have argued that how many examples we can recall from memory is what we use to infer how often we think such instances occur (Tversky & Kahneman, 1971). Therefore, the sheer exposure of information on current events in the form of bitesize news may actually be part of the reason why we fall into the trap of fake news.

The problem with fake news is that it can encourage people to reject what’s real in favour of what they choose to be real, by reinforcing their mental model of the world. Over time, the news we consume can form into narratives of our shared history, which influences the way we and future generations will understand the world around us. However, often through fake news and polarization of like-minded groups of people, “collective memory” can also form unique and biased narratives of events. Evidently, it is especially important to recognize the harm fake news can have on society for years to come.

Maybe the next time you scroll through social media and come across bitesize news omitting certain details, take a moment to step back and question what you are consuming. Sure, as Richards and Frankland (2017) propose through combining persistence and transience individuals exhibit flexible behavior and optimal decision-making, however when details are already omitted for us and we don’t question nor inform ourselves further, this is when consuming only surface-level, conceptual and general information can be problematic.

Citation:

Richards B. A., Frankland P. W. (2017). The persistence and transience of memory. Neuron 94, 1071–1084. 10.1016/j.neuron.2017.04.037

Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1971). Availability: A heuristic for judging frequency and probability. PsycEXTRA Dataset. doi:10.1037/e301722005-001


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