28 Jun 2020

How memory is a game of all or nothing

From Sunday Morning, 10:50 am on 28 June 2020

Who hasn't forgotten where they parked the car? New research by psychologists at the University of York's Department of Psychology has delved into recall and location-based amnesia.

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The study's co-author Dr Aidan Horner said the tests investigated whether memories become fuzzier as we forget, or if they drop away entirely - unable to be accessed.

"We tested 400 people online, and we tracked their memory for word location association - in a psychology experiment we have to simplify things, so we got them to learn a location of a word on a screen, and to remember that location at varying intervals. It told us quite a lot.

"Interestingly we showed that actually the memory itself doesn't get fuzzier - if you remember a word location, you remember it just as precisely as you might have done initially - or you just completely forget where that location is. The memory doesn't seem to become fuzzier in terms of remembering it imprecisely."

Can the findings help us learn how to remember where we parked the car?

"What it specifically shows ... is if you pay attention at the point of parking your car, you're likely to remember it, and you're likely to remember it very accurately," Horner said.

"So forgetting where you parked your car is probably more likely to be a function of the fact that you weren't paying attention - you were thinking about getting the kids out of the car, whether you've got your wallet, getting a trolley, etc, and you just forgot to really pay attention to where you parked it.

"If you did pay attention you'd probably remember where it's located, and probably with reasonable precision."

Horner said psychology experiments often test very specific scenarios, and it is tempting but unhelpful to extrapolate and apply them to the wider scenarios where memory is important to us.

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"What I can't say is that this research applies to memory broadly, say autobiographical memory, childhood memory - they're much more complex things in the real world.

"Memory is a hugely fascinating multi-faceted thing. The reasons we might initially encode a memory are varied, relating to our emotional state at the time, how much attention we're paying, etc.

"If it gets stuck in our brains the reasons we might then forget it are multi-faceted - we might experience lots of other similar related events, and that kind of  interferes with the memory trace itself, we might just not retrieve it that often compared to other memories that we're always rehearsing and going over, and they become stronger, so there's a huge number of reasons we might remember certain childhood memories rather than others."

The researchers were interested in how our memory functions when remembering similar events.

"We're able to experience lots of similar events in our life, and presumably the brain is able to extract similarities across those events to make predictions about what might happen in similar events," he said.

To test this the researchers tried to help participants recall word placement and find a pattern by clustering words on the same theme in one location.

"What that did was allow participants to say 'well, these type of words tend to be located in this area', and what that did in terms of memory was it boosted accessibility - they remembered more of these word locations. But at the expense of precision - they remembered the word locations less precisely when they were clustered.

"That seems to be a marker of people extracting patterns across these events, but it comes at an expense; we might now be able to make sensible predictions ... but we remember the past events somewhat less precisely."

Horner said there are things that can be done to help us remember things we particularly do want to remember.

"When we're actually learning the information we can pay as much attention as possible, and the other thing is we can continually retrieve and rehearse that information, go back to it at regular intervals. That aids long-term retention."