Archive for the ‘Memory’ Category

Memory Part 3: Old or New; False or True?

Tuesday, March 19th, 2013

Today I went back to Nelson Cowan's article, "What are the differences between long-term, short-term and working memory," as he appeared to be a definitive expert on the subject. Cowan is the Curators' Professor of Psychology at the University of Missouri and specializes in working memory research.

I'd certainly heard of long-term and short-term memory and could conceptualize those fairly easily, or so I thought. I can vividly remember a scene with each of my paternal grandparents. Grandpa Sam was angry with my first dog and kicked at her; so I kicked him. I was four or five and in trouble!

Years later, after my grandfather died, I remember Grandma Pearl dancing in her living room while watching American Bandstand. She must have been in her mid-seventies and seemed very old to me then.

These come in handy

These come in handy

Short-term memory, to me, has always been the capacity to recall something told you a brief time ago. I just got a phone call from a woman my wife Lynnette had contacted about someone who wished to volunteer at Bas Bleu, the local theatre we've been connected to for the last fourteen years. The staffer from the theatre said to tell the potential volunteer to go online to the Bas Bleu website and fill in a preliminary form.

I heard that message, but knew I'd be doing at least three other things before Lynnette got home, so I wrote her a note rather than trying to remember, later in the day, that I had a message to pass on to her.

An online article in mentions the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve, published by a German psychologist in 1885. In one of the first scientific studies of how we do or don't retain information, Herman Ebbinghaus, who had begun his memory work in 1879, used himself as a research subject. He utilized three-letter "nonsense syllables. All began with a consonant, followed by a vowel and another consonant. He eliminated any where the consonant was a repeat (e.g., CAC) or where an actual word or prior meaning could play a role (DOT or BOL ~Ball). That left 2,300 possible combinations.

Then he'd put the syllables in a box, pull out some at random, write them down and repeat them many times to the beat of a metronome.

His results are still thought relevant now with later research by others to support them. The forgetting curve is the most famous. The sharpest decline occurs in the first twenty minutes and the decay is significant through the first hour. The curve levels off after about one day.

Ebbinghaus noted he could concentrate and have a "fleeting grasp" of the series of three-letter syllables, but, in order to stabilize their order in his memory, he had to repeat them over and over.
A memory specialist named Elizabeth Loftus, past president of the American Psychological Society, thinks there are four reasons why we forget: our memory traces decay over time; some memories compete with others; we may never have made the particular datum into a long-term memory; or we may have suppressed or repressed the memory.

Loftus, now a Distinguished Professor of Social Ecology, Law and Cognitive Sciences at UC, Irvine, is famous (some would say infamous) for her research in "false memories," as published in a 1997 edition of Scientific American. She had studied the "disinformation effect" since the early 1970s with studies revealing that memory may be affected by later suggestions. In one of her studies, after research subjects viewed a simulated MVA, half were told there was a yield sign at the intersection where the "accident" occurred (the initial viewing actually showed a stop sign). Those who had not been given the later suggestion that it was a yield sign were considerably more accurate in remembering the scene; the other group tended to remember a yield sign.

Loftus reviewed a number of legal cases in which suggestions had resulted in false memories and eventually was involved in the famous Jane Doe case: a published article in the medical literature had claimed an accurate "recovered memory" of childhood sexual abuse. Loftus and a colleague uncovered information strongly suggesting that the memory of abuse was false. The woman involved accused Loftus of invasion of privacy, and the University where she worked confiscated her records and conducted a year and three-quarters investigation, eventually clearing Loftus who published her findings in 2002. She then was sued by the woman, but the California Supreme Court dismissed all but one count which was eventually settled as a nuisance claim for $7,500 (the plaintiff in the case had a legal bill over $450,000).

Loftus is certainly not alone in researching false memories. She mentions a study by two other professors, Lynn Giff and Henry Roediger III, where the subjects were to knock on a table, lift a stapler, break a toothpick or similar fairly simple tasks. Later they were repeatedly asked to imagine doing some of the tasks they hadn't actually carried out. Finally they were questioned as to which of those actions they had done.

The more times they had repeated an imaginary physical act, they more likely they were to answer that they had actually done it.

Cowan's paper mentions that those two forms of memory differ in some fundamental ways: short-term memory exhibits temporal decay and has chunk-capacity limits. In other words, over time we lose memories we have not committed firmly to long-term memory and we are only able to focus our attention on a limited number of items at a given time.

Ah, yes, I need to go to the grocery store after I finish this post.

Ah, yes, I need to go to the grocery store after I finish this post.

If you are asked to remember a hypothetical phone number, e.g., (800) 264-7813 and repeat it often enough, you may remember it next week. But, unless it's a number you use frequently, you're unlikely to remember it next month. And if you are presented with the task of remembering a number with forty digits, you probably can't memorize it at all.

Cowan notes three differing definitions of working memory: they all make sense to me, but I'll give examples of only two. The first is using your short-term memory to solve a problem (Cowan terms this a cognitive task). So if you give me the ingredients you'd like in an omelet, I'll start breaking the eggs. Another, that I've become more and more familiar with as I age is the use of attention to manage short-term memory. I watch teens and twenty-somethings multi-task with considerable amazement; if I want to remember something, I need to focus on it and if I'm in the midst of doing something that requires my attention and another item pops up (e.g., the phone message I received a few hours ago), it's best if I write it down.

Enough for today; I just remembered I have another task to finish this evening.



Memory Part 2: what's old and what's new

Wednesday, March 13th, 2013
Her's one way to remember things.

Her's one way to remember things.

In my last post I wrote about what I call short-term memory and my own issues with remembering; I also mentioned typical aged-related memory problems. Now I'd like to delve into ideas for improving our own recall.

I leave myself notes on things to do and I tend to use acronyms or short phrases to remember names. For instance, I had noted a diminutive lady on the recumbent bike next to mine in our health club. She was about my age and was in the gym almost as often as I was. I finally introduced myself and found out her name and, eventually, that of her husband. She's Allison and I quickly decided that my mental picture of her was hurrying to follow a rabbit while she was carrying an umbrella and wearing a short skirt, i.e., "Allison Wonderland."

I tend to be be bad with remembering names, but hers is certainly fixed in my mind.

I also use acronyms. Her husband's name is David, so together they became a court room scene with the acronym "DA." David is the prosecuting district attorney and Allison is there because she jaywalked following the rabbit.

Another person I frequently encounter there is perhaps 15 years older than I am and his name is Jerry...I rendered that as "Jerryatric."

But there are other ways, some of them quite old, to hit the memory bullseye

But there are other ways, some of them quite old, to hit the memory bullseye

Reading about the varied approaches to memory over many years, I became aware that prior to there being a generalized ability to read written language, people were able to memorize long segments of epic poems. I'm unsure if this was training from a young age or the use of a particular system for memorization. One possibility that has been explored came to my attention from the fictional character Hannibal Lector.

His method of memorization led me to a 1966 classic, The Art of Memory, The author, Frances Yates traces the history of systems of memory; one was the Memory Palace of Mateo Ricci, supposedly utilized by Lector, in which a well-visualized structure can be utilized to place objects.

For instance you could visualize your own home or the rooms of a building that you visit regularly. We tend to be good at remembering places we know well. The concept of the "Memory Palace" is just a metaphor, one that can be as complex or simple as you like, perhaps being a visual map of the places you saw walking to school or driving to work. Whatever the place that you choose, you then have to have it well-visualized because you're going to "drop" memories at a particular corner or on an object you see in your house every day.

I thought this wouldn't work for me, but I just memorized a shopping list of ten items (bacon, eggs, wine, batteries, bubble gum, milk, envelopes, spinach, coffee, tomato) using the technique of mind pegging, the basic start to this concept for remembering a number of items.

When I decided to utilize this method on my list I pictured myself sitting at my kitchen table planning an omelet (bacon and eggs) while drinking a glass of wine. Then the lights went out.

I had to put new batteries into my flashlight and used it to look for additional items in my refrigerator to add to my creation, only to first find I had stashed bubble gum (I've done similar things before) next to the milk.

I still wanted to write down ingredients for my omelet, so I looked for paper and found the most accessible source was in a drawer where I keep envelopes. I made a list adding spinach while I drank a cup of coffee and then finished my recipe with a tomato.

It really worked! I may have to try a similar approach the next time i really do plan to go shopping.

Let's skip to what's current advice and research in the field.

The March 12, 2013 edition of The Wall Street Journal  had an article titled, "The New Power of Memory." It referred to a recent publication in the journal Cerebral Cortex  by Daniel Schacter, the Chair of the Department of Psychology at Harvard, and colleagues.The WSJ article had an illustration that tied in with my exercise in using a visual link to a list of objects. In this case someone was planning a party for a friend. If they relied on hunches and assumptions about their pal (this step was called "access the past"), then continued in this manner with guesswork in piecing together the image of their friend's personality and imagining their mindset, the end result was a dud, a failure.

If, on the other hand, they remembered specifics about their buddy's past likes and dislikes, as well as incidents that revealed their personality, then used those to imagine their likely mindset, the end result was a hit.

Dr. Schacter was quoted as saying, "using past experiences to anticipate future happenings" lets people weigh approaches to a coming situation without needing to try out the actual behavior.

In other words, if you hone your recall skills until they are sharper, you may be able to avoid a party that's a dud or even prevent a business decision that's a catastrophe.

I'll have to use this approach more often.