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Never Doubt The Power of Patterns

November 30th, 2020 No comments

Link to meme: https://conservativememes.com/i/instagram-businessmindset101-i-dont-trust-words-butinever-doubt-patterns-never-7771417.

Patterns are recurring, holistic templates used by humans during problem solving as well as performing various activities involving reasoning. Everything in the world possesses its own pattern and until these patterns are analyzed by the human mind during recognition, they remain unanalyzed (UKEssays, 2018). Some examples of patterns include waves in the ocean, stripes, symmetries, the order of the English alphabet, the structure of the various lines that comprise specific letters in this alphabet (e.g., A, B, C, D, E, F, etc.), and the way objects are structured through the specific and unique organization of an object’s features. In other words, think of a lamp. Lamps, while they can be very unique, typically follow the organization of having some type of base underneath a light bulb which is covered by a lamp shade. While it may not immediately seem like a pattern when we don’t give it much thought, it is, and despite the obscure or ornate designs of lamps in today’s society, an object’s possession of these three basic components—i.e., a base, light bulb, and some sort of lamp shade—enables us to identify unrecognized variations of this piece of furniture as lamps.

Imagine life without patterns. Difficult, right? It may be even more difficult than initially thought. Patterns provide efficiency, clarity, and a degree of certainty. However, without patterns, we would arguably have no world at all, as we would have no perception of it. Patterns impart order, allowing us to make sense of the world and ultimately survive. Patterns are everywhere and are fundamental to our understanding of the world as we rely on the order they provide to enable us to recognize and make sense of our surroundings. The first step in recognizing pattern(s) around us is the recognition of features through sensory input from our environment (Coane, 2020). In other words, when we recognize patterns, we’re taking the distal stimuli—i.e., external information in our environment—coming in through our sensory input organs (e.g., eyes, ears, skin, nose, etc.) and entering it in our sensory register in order to ultimately produce a new mental representation or proximal stimulus, or add this incoming information to a pre-existing mental representation if this information is a repeated experience or pattern (Coane, 2020). The distal stimulus varies based on which sensory system is engaged in order to recognize a pattern. For example, the distal stimulus for our visual system would be wavelengths of light coming in through our eyes, the distal stimulus for our auditory system would be sound waves coming in through our ears, that of touch or heat would be pressure and temperature information coming in from our skin, and that of scent would be chemical properties (Coane, 2020).

Two examples of how pattern recognition plays a significant role in our everyday lives are face recognition and folding laundry. I’m going to start by talking about face recognition. Everyone has unique physical features that are organized in a distinctive manner and make each person who they are. This specific composition of features allows us, as the perceiver, to differentiate one person from another in addition to facilitating our accurate identification of someone following a first encounter through our pairing of the information we are receiving in a subsequent meeting (i.e., our sensory inputs of the perceived individual’s features) with the information we have already stored in our brains from our initial encounter with that individual. Certain patterns we may recognize through face recognition include tone of voice, height, fashion style, hair color, and unique facial features such as the distance between an individual’s eyes, the size of their nose and forehead, and the shape of their mouth. Thus, as you can imagine, it would be pretty difficult to recognize individuals in our environment without being able to utilize pattern recognition to quickly match the distal stimuli (i.e., an individual’s specific features and the unique organization of said features) with the existing representations we form during our initial encounter with that person. Now, switching to my laundry example, pattern recognition also has an important role in this ordinary task as various features of our clothing such as shape, size, material, color, and weight play a part in helping us accurately and quickly identify articles of clothing when we fold them. If I were to hand you a laundry basket of clean clothes all mixed together and appearing like a big blob of cloth, and asked you to fold and sort it into long-sleeve shirts, short-sleeve shirts, pants, shorts, underwear, socks, and sweaters, I am 99.9% confident you would be able to successfully do so given your ability to recognize patterns. Through the organization of a pair of pants’ fabric—i.e., a three-holed article of clothing with one big hole at the top followed by two cylinder-like shapes each with their own separate hole at the bottom—you would be able to recognize this item as pants given your existing mental representation of this unique composition of fabric constituting pants. When folding socks, you would be able to differentiate a sock from a shirt based on its shape as a sock appears as a pocket-like item shaped like a foot with one hole at the top. Additionally, you would be able to differentiate a sock from a shirt by looking at the different sizes of these two articles of clothing. More specifically, by relying on your mental representation of socks as being smaller in comparison to an adult-sized shirt, you would be able to tell the difference between these two items of clothing. Now, imagine you do not have the ability to recognize patterns and I asked you to do this same task of folding and sorting laundry. In taking a step back and thinking about how I would approach this task without the ability to recognize patterns, I immediately thought of what I normally do when I have to utilize a newly-learned mathematical equation in a homework problem set for school: I look at my class notes detailing the steps with which the professor solved the equation in order to apply this same sequence of steps to my homework problems by simply plugging in new numbers. However, when I thought more critically about this mechanism with which I learn, I realized its obvious foundation was pattern recognition as I am undoubtedly evaluating patterns in my notes in order to apply them to my homework. My realization revealed to me how prevalent pattern recognition really is. To be quite honest, I am not sure how I would fold laundry or even begin to differentiate between various items of clothing without having the ability to recognize patterns to any extent. In fact, how does one even begin to perceive the world around them without ever having the ability to recognize patterns in any way, shape, or form? Without pattern recognition how would we form mental representations of environmental stimuli in the first place? This realization really highlights how crucial this process is in our lives and the extremely significant role it plays in the ways in which we see and interact with the world around us.

In thinking about what would happen if we were unable to recognize patterns, I thought of people who have experienced and survived traumatic accidents that may have resulted in brain damage, a loss of vision, or damage to their memory. More specifically, I thought of how such accidents can lead to specific conditions like visual agnosia, for example, which refers to the loss of the brain’s ability—in individuals with or affected by this condition—to interpret visual sensations, store knowledge from incoming visual stimuli, and thereby recognize the world around them through incoming visual stimuli (Lawson). As a result of these impairments in the visual recognition systems of people with this condition, these individuals have a difficult time perceiving the world around them as they are unable to sense visual information to form patterns in the same way they used to be able to prior to having this condition, making it extremely difficult, almost impossible, to recognize patterns in new visual stimuli (Lawson). Consequently, given how much we rely on our visual systems to perceive our surroundings specifically through the formation of mental representations based on visual patterns in our environments, people with visual agnosia often struggle to make sense of the world around them. Thinking about how much life and our perception of our world changes when visual pattern recognition is taken away highlights the great importance of patterns and reveals how this seemingly mundane ability is something many people take for granted (Lawson). Long story short, patterns play an important role in the mechanisms with which humans sense, interpret, perceive, and understand environmental information, in addition to helping humans avoid information overload, as well as make decisions, gain new knowledge, and ultimately learn (Coane, 2020; Lawson; UKEssays, 2018).

However, now that we’ve gone over a few of the many benefits of patterns and what could potentially happen in a world without pattern recognition, it is important to understand how we actually identify these repetitions in our environments. Pattern recognition is a broad topic referring to the cognitive process by which we recognize events or objects in the world and then label and identify these objects (Coane, 2020). A good pattern recognition system is fast, ignores variability that is irrelevant to the discrimination task at hand, differentiates among similar items, and is accurate (Coane, 2020). Pattern recognition requires the repetition of experience in order to function and recruits many specific cognitive processes in order to work properly, efficiently, and be successful. Unconscious inference is an example of one of these more pinpointed processes that is a component of pattern recognition. Through helping us connect the dots between prior knowledge and environmental stimuli in addition to filling in gaps of missing information from external stimuli, unconscious inference helps us make sense of and understand the world around us. The theory of unconscious inferences suggests that the human brain unconsciously utilizes top-down processes through the employment of our stored prior knowledge in order to interpret, perceive, and ultimately understand the world (McBride & Cutting). For example, if we were to look at an image of two people sitting down at a dinner table in which we can see only the top half of their bodies because the table is covering up their legs, unconscious inference would guide our conclusion that both individuals do in fact have legs. This inference is driven by our prior experiences during which we’ve observed countless people sitting down at a dinner table that have legs. Of course, it’s possible that these individuals don’t have legs although it’s statistically much less likely. Therefore, we assume that the people in this photograph have legs that are simply blocked from our view by the table. Now, think about what would happen if we didn’t have unconscious inference in this scenario. We would probably be pretty confused as to where the rest of these individual’s bodies are and question if these people even have the rest of their bodies that aren’t visible to us in the picture. This confusion would most likely take up significant mental energy and space in our brains while we during our attempt to make sense of what we are seeing which is incredibly inefficient.

In discussing the importance of both pattern recognition and unconscious inference through contemplating what would happen and what it would mean for human perception as we know it without these two cognitive processes, the critical importance both pattern recognition and unconscious inference is very obvious. In other words, without our cognitive processes of pattern recognition and unconscious inference, we would lack the ability to make reasonable, timely and most likely accurate assessments of the world around us which is ultimately vital to human survival.

 

References

Coane, J. (2020). Lecture on Perception and Pattern Recognition. Colby College.

Lawson, H. A World Without Patterns, Faces Without Meaning. Theory of Knowledge. https://www.coralgablescavaliers.org/ourpages/users/099346/IB%20Theory%20of%20Knowledge/Bastian%20Chapter%2004/Lawson%20A%20World%20Without%20Faces.pdf

McBride, D. M, & Cutting, J. C. (2019). Cognitive Psychology: Theory, Process, and Methodology. Chapter 3.

UKEssays. (2018, November). Pattern Recognition Psychology. Retrieved November 30, 2020, from https://www.ukessays.com/essays/psychology/the-pattern-recognition-definition-psychology-essay.php

I don’t want to think about it—Oh wait.

November 27th, 2020 No comments

Do you ever find yourself driving somewhere or walking to a place without even thinking about it? Take this for example: Your friend invited you over to their house to hang out. So you get ready to leave, jump in your car, and make your way there. As you begin to drive, you take all the normal turns you would to regularly get there until you realize you are five minutes away from their old address. They recently moved to a different house about 20 minutes from their old one, and what was going to be a 10 minute trip has turned into a 30 minute one. You’ve been to their new house before but for some reason you unconsciously still drove to their old address. Overtime, you continuously begin to remember that your friend does not, in fact, live at their old address until the association with them and their new address remains in the forefront of your mind while the old address is locked away in your archives of “things that are a distant memory”.

Inhibition is used to help block out things that we don’t necessarily want to remember.

This happens to people all the time in different scenarios during our daily lives, but why does this happen even when we know the correct route to take or decision to make? One of my favorite singer-songwriters, Olivia O’brien, made me wonder, briefly, this same thing after listening to her song “Inhibition” as it came on my playlist. I never really knew what inhibition actually meant but it really didn’t matter to me, the song was catchy and I figured it probably made sense in the context of the lyrics. Next thing I knew, we were discussing O’brien’s song title in my Cognitive Psychology class! Normally, I would be able to listen to music and go about my daily life without psychoanalyzing everything about it, but studying a subject such as cognitive psychology tends to make you question a lot of really normal processes that occur during everyday life. Taking this even further, to what extent can our inhibitory processes work sufficiently before we can’t keep unwanted memories from entering our present thinking state?

We use inhibition very often in many different situations, whether it’s something like the described scenario above, or something as simple as focusing our attention in any given moment. In many ways, inhibition is a fancy way of describing our control of memory retrieval when different cues remind us of things that we don’t necessarily want or need to remember in that moment (Levy & Anderson, 2002). This can be caused by different learned actions or traumatic experiences that link certain things in our environment to specific memories. Our inhibitory mechanisms take control of different conspicuous behaviors and they also target memories that are directly related to a cue to manage retrieval of them (Levy & Anderson, 2002). In this way, we can look at our inhibitory processes as a way for us to suppress unwanted accessibility to particular memories (Bjork, 2011). Things as simple as reading can cause us to use our inhibition to correctly read a word and find the right memory to pull into our working memory.

The Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex, Anterior Cingulate Cortex, and the Orbitofrontal Cortex all work together in the inhibition process.

So inhibition is clearly important for us in order to go about our day without being entirely conflicted with ourselves and what we are seeing and trying to interpret. But what happens when we fail to use it? It feels like it would lead to a catastrophic level explosion of information trying to be interpreted by our working memory, ending what I imagine would be a mental breakdown. Thankfully, our inhibitory neurons do a really good job at making sure this doesn’t happen. Angie McCalla, a speech and language Pathologist at Rainbow Rehabilitation Centers outlines the three parts of the brain involved in making sure our inhibition abilities are set and ready to go. Altogether, the Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex (DLPFC), the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC), and the Orbitofrontal Cortex (OFC) work with each other to ensure that certain unwanted responses to things we are seeing and doing don’t end up occurring. The DLPFC is used to handle different thought processes and behaviors in the moment, which includes working recall and response inhibition. The ACC helps find competing responses to a cue and works to push back the incorrect response. Lastly, the OFC manages things such as impulse control and socially appropriate behaviors. This seems like a lot and is a little confusing. It took me a second to figure this out too, but luckily Benjamin J. Levy and Michael C. Anderson thread it together nicely in their article in the 2002 issue of Trends In Cognitive Sciences. They explained that since the ACC can help identify when two responses are trying to respond to one cue, it sends a signal to the DLPFC to put more restraints on our working recall and to put our inhibitory processes into action. This then signals the OFC to make a decision as to which response is the correct one to use based on the cue we are interacting with, and in turn, signals to inhibit the other unwanted response from our working memory. 

Still with me? Okay. Now that we know way more about how inhibition works than we did before, let’s look at how Kefi Mohamed Zeid found out that people who can fluently speak more than one language generally will have a more efficient ability to inhibit information using the Stroop Task.

The Stroop Task forces us to slow down and pull apart our automatic processes and inhibit our learned behaviors to correctly complete the task.

Using a total of 180 participants (90 younger and 90 older) who spoke both Arabic and French, Zeid tested them all on the Stroop Task with a slight twist. On top of reading the words, naming the colors, and the color-word condition, the participants also had a fourth condition in which they were shown the color-word condition but in the two languages (Arabic and French). Reid and his team found that participants who were more dominant in either language performed better on that test that was in their dominant language, but participants who were balanced in both languages performed equally as well on both the French and Arabic Stroop tests. Furthermore, they saw that the un-dominant language in participants who were more dominant in one than the other, is harder to retrieve information for as the older a participant was (Zeid, 2004). You may be wondering what the point of including this was, so let me explain: Since the older participants with a bias towards one language or the other had a progressively harder time on the Stroop Task in their non-dominant language, we can understand that over time, things that are not used as often can slowly became harder to access and are suppressed more heavily by our inhibition.

Let’s circle back to our hypothetical selves driving to our friend’s house. If we think of the two addresses, old and new, as the two languages present in Zeid’s study, we can see how the old address may have once been the dominant language to us, which is why it isn’t as easy to inhibit at first. As we slowly begin to learn the new address, however, we strengthen what was initially our non-dominant language. The more we practice it and don’t practice the other language, we almost switch which one is our dominant and non-dominant source of information. Once this switch is made, the newly dominant language, or our friends new address, has easier access to our working memory, leaving the non-dominant language, or our friends old address, under a heavier influence from our inhibitory processes.

After this deep, deep dive into inhibition, what it is, and how it works, I can officially say that Olivia O’brien’s song makes a lot more sense to me now, and that she is very lyrically gifted. Maybe someone else who reads this and listen’s to the song will be able to appreciate it as much as I do right now.

 

References

Anderson, M. C., & Levy, B. J. (2016). On The Relationship Between Interference And Inhibition In Cognition. In 1084770490 823458394 A. S. Benjamin & 1084770491 823458394 R. A. Bjork (Authors), Successful remembering and successful forgetting: A festschrift in honor of Robert A. Bjork (pp. 107-132). London ; New York: Routledge, Taylor et Francis Group.

Levy, B. (2002). Inhibitory processes and the control of memory retrieval. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 6(7), 299-305. doi:10.1016/s1364-6613(02)01923-x 

McCalla, A. (2017, July 26). Executive Functioning – Where is it Controlled and How Does it Develop? / Remediation Techniques for Deficits and Dysfunction. https://www.rainbowrehab.com/executive-functioning/ 

Zied, K. M., Phillipe, A., Karine, P., Valerie, H., Ghislaine, A., Arnaud, R., & Didier, L. G. (2004). Bilingualism and adult differences in inhibitory mechanisms: Evidence from a bilingual stroop task. Brain and Cognition, 54(3), 254-256. doi:10.1016/j.bandc.2004.02.036

Be happy. Be productive

November 26th, 2020 No comments

The COVID-19 pandemic has heightened fear, social isolation, and economic anxiety across many communities around the country.  In a recent survey of roughly 300 American workers, about 40% said they feel less productive than usual during the pandemic (Ducharme, 2020). College students, including those at Colby College, are not immune to similar feelings such as a lack of productivity, inability to pay attention, and an overall decrease in work performance. When talking to students at Colby College there is a general consensus that one’s ability to focus on one’s work has decreased in addition to overall cognitive performance. This general belief of decreased productivity and ability got me thinking about possible reasons for this widespread feeling. I began to wonder, “have students become lazier?”, “have Colby College students become less intelligent?”, or “have classes become harder?”. Logically thinking through these questions, I conclude a reasonable answer to these questions is “no” to all. But what could be driving these changes in cognitive performance across the Colby campus and beyond? Thinking back to my own peaks in academic performance, I think about the times in which I have seen the greatest success. Overall, I have found that my academic performance seems to be positively correlated with my level of happiness. These observations from the world of the pandemic, my own life, and the general trends on the Colby campus this year has led me to wonder, how do emotions affect one’s cognitive performance? Due to the magnitude of studies varying by different moods and cognitive processes, this blog will primarily focus on positive mood’s effects on learning and memory.

 

Fray, B. (2020). ‘I’m sick and tired of your mood swings, Frank!’. Cartoon Stock, https://www.cartoonstock.com/directory/m/mood_swings.asp

 

Feelings consume daily lives, yet we fail to fully recognize their impact on our cognitive functions. Mood can be described as a dispositional state that lasts for several minutes or hours (Mitchell & Phillips, 2007). While research on emotional science did not emerge as an organized specialty until the introduction of the International Society for Research and Emotions (ISRE) in the mid-1980s, many studies following this period have revealed the diverse and prolific ways positive emotions can affect human’s ability to learn. A leader in research on positive emotions, Barbara Fredrickson states, “positive emotions are brief, multisystem responses to changes in the way people interpret their current situation. When this response registers good prospects or functions, a positive mood is produced (Fredrickson, 2013). Researchers have found that negative and positive emotions alike evolved from selective pressures related to survival. While negative emotions are important for flight and fleeing responses, positive emotions allow for strategic and long term actions. According to a 2013 study, positive emotions play a great role in humans’ past and present ability to make discoveries, acquire new knowledge, form new alliances, and gain new skills. (Fredrickson, 2013). According to these ideas, positive emotions as a whole can help with new skills and knowledge, positive emotions should be able to help with academic performance. The Broaden-and-build theory proposes that positive emotions broaden people’s thoughts and actions. Research has found that positive moods can be linked to broadened cognition in a variety of characteristics increase creativity (Isen, 1987), visual attentional expansion(Rowe et al, 2007), and beyond.

 

 Alice Isen has been a leader in mood effects on cognitive performance. Throughout her research, she has found that positive affect as a whole gives rise to enlarged cognitive context (Isen, 1987). One of her studies conducted in 1978 found that positive mood has been shown to facilitate a broader focus of attention and memory ability. For example, she found that individuals in a positive mood state can recall more words than those in a negative mood state (Isen et al., 1978). This ability to recall more words could be due to positive effects, the tendency to see more relatedness and interconnections among various thoughts and further process material in a more integrated and flexible fashion. In one of her research experiments, she found that relative to individuals in a neutral control condition, individuals in a positive mood were able to name more unusual associations to neutral words. Going off of this research, Isen also found that those in a positive mood used more inclusive categories as a whole (Isen & Duabman, 1984). In this study, those in a positive mood sorted a set of 14 colored chips into fewer categories than those in a neutral mood. Increasing the amount of information placed into a smaller subset of categories is referred to as chunking. Miller pointed out that limits in our working memory capacity for processing information led to the necessity of organizing items into chunks. Due to the limited capacity of short-term memory, when placed into chunks of information based on prior knowledge, this allows the new information to become easier to retain and recall. Isen’s finding that positive moods increase inclusion in categories demonstrates that the chunking process can be aided and therefore memory recall. This idea of enhanced ability to chunk information due to positive mood is further supported by a study that found that consumers are more likely to encode a brand’s category membership when they are examining a brand named in a positive mood (Anderson & Bower, 1973). This result is proposed to be caused by an increased number of brands to be linked during encoding by an associated network. This allows an increased number of brands to be used as an effective cue for retrieval of a target brand. The enhanced chunking can thus free resources to encode more brands and categories. Due to positive emotions’ ability to increase chunking capacity, people are able to obtain more information which can aid in learning and performance. This increased ability to chunk could be explained by additional Isen findings that people in positive moods are better at creative thinking. This research conducted in 1987 found that subjects in positive affect conditions were able to break the normal route and see additional features of items used in the task that aided their full potential for solving the problem (Isen et al., 1987). Creative problem solving is crucial for academic and lifelong success. 

 

Further research supported Isen’s proposition that positive emotions can increase attention as a whole. In a study conducted by Wadlngr and Isaacowitz (2006), they found that when participants were asked to look at one central image and two peripheral images in various locations, those that were induced to be in a good mood changed the focus of their gaze more frequently, and looked more at the peripherally located images. This data further suggests that not only do people in positive moods broaden their scope of general attention but this extends to people’s visual attention and semantic attention Rowe et al., (2007). In order to understand, memorize, and recall this before us, we must first pay attention to it. Attention allows you to “tune out” information, sensations, and perceptions that are not relevant at the moment and instead focus your energy on the information that’s important. The ability to tune out irrelevant information is crucial in a place where someone needs to learn and thus aids in performance as a whole. In summary, Isen’s research along with supportive research is able to show that people in positive moods in comparison to those in a neutral state are able to offer more unusual cognitive associations, create and use more inclusive categories, recall larger numbers of words, and freeform better on standard tests on creative thinking. These enhancements would suggest that positive moods broaden a person’s scope of cognition, and therefore can positively influence a person’s academic and work performance. 

 

Fran (2020). “People aren’t happy enough…I want a 15% increase in happiness by the 1st of the month or heads will roll!”. Cartoonstock. https://www.cartoonstock.com/directory/p/personal_contentment.asp

 

So how exactly are positive emotions able to help with our problem-solving abilities, recall, and overall performance? One prominent theory of mood proposed by Ashby, looks at these benefits through a biological lens, stating that the benefits of consolidation of long-term episodic memory, working memory, and the ability to problem-solve are due to the release of dopamine in the anterior cingulate (Ashby et al., 1999). While some studies have concluded that positive emotions produce many benefits, other studies demonstrate that there are limitations to positive emotion’s perceived benefits. One of the earliest theories of mood and cognitive function, the mood-congruency framework, tends to maintain that the effects of positive and negative mood states are thought to bias information in favor of mood-congruent stimuli (Bower, 1981). This proposed theory elicits that while positive moods can enhance memory, it does so primarily when the information is in itself positive or was learned in a positive state of mind. Additionally, research has found that while positive moods can broaden a person’s attention, this broadened perspective can come at a cost of higher distractibility (Dreisbach & Gischke) and harder time ignoring task irrelevant tasks (Rowe et al., 2007). While there remains to be some controversy on the extent to the benefits of positive mood, its significant effects on creative problem solving, chunking ability, and attention demonstrates that positive emotions have the ability to improve academic performance. While it is incredibly hard to keep a good mood during this time on campus and at home, you should know that the effort to be in a good mood can go a long way for your academic long term performance. 

 

Freepik (2018). Group of happy business people in a meeting at office. FeePik. https://www.freepik.com/premium-photo/group-happy-business-people-meeting-office_2549456.htm

 

 

Reference

Anderson, J. R., & Bower, G. H. (1972). Recognition and retrieval processes in free recall. Psychological Review, 79(2), 97–123. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0033773

Ashby, F. G., Isen, A. M., & Turken, A. U. (1999). A neuropsychological theory of positive affect and its influence on cognition. Psychological Review, 106(3), 529-550. doi:10.1037/0033-295X.106.3.529

Bower, G. H. (1981). Mood and memory. American Psychologist, 36(2), 129–148. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.36.2.129

Ducharme, J. (2020). How to Concentrate and Focus During the COVID-19 Pandemic. https://time.com/5878780/how-to-focus-covid-19-pandemic/. 

Fredrickson, B. L. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology. the broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. The American Psychologist, 56(3), 218-226. doi:10.1037//0003-066X.56.3.218

Fredrickson, B. L. (2013). Positive emotions broaden and build. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 47, 1-53. doi:10.1016/B978-0-12-407236-7.00001-2

Isen, A. M., & Daubman, K. A. (1984). The influence of affect on categorization. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 47(6), 1206–1217. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.47.6.1206

Isen, A. M., Daubman, K. A., & Nowicki, G. P. (1987). Positive affect facilitates creative problem solving. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52(6), 1122-1131. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.52.6.1122

Isen, A. M., Johnson, M. M. S., Mertz, E., & Robinson, G. F. (1985). The influence of positive affect on the unusualness of word associations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 48(6), 1413-1426. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.48.6.1413

Isen, A. M., Shalker, T. E., Clark, M., & Karp, L. (1978). Affect, accessibility of material in memory, and behavior: A cognitive loop? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36(1), 1-12. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.36.1.1

Mitchell RLC, Phillips LH. The psychological, neurochemical and functional neuroanatomical mediators of the effects of positive and negative mood on executive functions. Neuropsychologia. 2007;45:617–629.

Rowe, G., Hirsh, J. B., & Anderson, A. K. (2006;2007;). Positive affect increases the breadth of attentional selection. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences – PNAS, 104(1), 383-388. doi:10.1073/pnas.0605198104

Wadlinger, H. A., & Isaacowitz, D. M. (2006). Positive mood broadens visual attention to positive stimuli. Motivation and Emotion, 30(1), 87-99. doi:10.1007/s11031-006-9021-1

Are You Sure You Remember?

November 25th, 2020 No comments

When I was four years old, I accidentally set myself on fire. I vividly remember going up close to a candle and the next thing I knew, the front of my shirt was engulfed in a flame. I then remember screaming for my parents, who emerged from opposite sides of our apartment and managed to put out the fire. However, my mum remembers this story quite differently. Her narration goes, “You were trying to put out the flame of a candle, so you used your shirt to help you. It then caught on fire, and you screamed so your father, and I together ran out and put the fire out.”

So now the question is, which version is right? While they both contain the same big picture, the smaller details are quite different. Now I’m sure I’m not the first person to argue with my mum over whose version of the story is correct, but you would think that with a reasonably traumatic moment like that, both of us would remember it better.

When you truly belive in what your saying but there is a high chance you are wrong

This is where confabulation comes in. Confabulation is one of many memory errors that we humans tend to encounter. It mainly happens when someone has a gap in their memory, so it gets filled with misconstrued, distorted or even made-up information. There are two different types of confabulation, spontaneous and provoked. Spontaneous confabulations occur when recalling information or memories, like our scenario above. However, provoked confabulations are quite different. These occur when someone is asked a direct question that then provokes a false memory. In fact, these two types of confabulations have two different mechanisms, meaning that they are completely separate from one another.

There are two different types of confabulation, spontaneous and provoked. Spontaneous confabulations occur when recalling information or memories, like our scenario above. However, provoked confabulations are quite different. These happen when someone is asked a direct question that then provokes a false memory. These two types of confabulations have two different mechanisms, meaning that they are entirely separate from one another.

Example of a police interview

So why should you care? It may be clear by now that spontaneous are quite difficult to avoid. One the other hand, provoked confabulations can be quite dangerous. Questioning someone is a crucial step in solving crimes, but what if confabulation impacted a witnesses claims. Research has shown that something as simple as confirmatory feedback during an interview can increase one’s confabulations. Confirmatory feedback can be saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ but can even be a nod or a head shake, all things that are vital communication tools for humans. In one such study titled Interviewing Witnesses: Forced Confabulation and Confirmatory Feedback Increase False Memories researchers asked a couple of adult participants to watch a video and then asked them questions on this video. These questions were asked in a face to face manner where participants were forced to confabulate the details of the video they just watched. The researchers used confirmatory statements such as, ‘Yes ___ is the correct answer” for select answers and reposed with neutral statements such as “Okay ___” for the rest. The results of this study are quite fascinating if I can say so myself. Not only was there a direct impact of confabulation on the creation of false memories a week later, but they also found the participants increased confidence in those false memories increased the chances that they would still be recalling the confabulated events one to two months later! This particular study shows just how easily people can be manipulated without realizing it and how long the impacts of provoked confabulation can last.

Now you may be thinking; clearly, these people are lying! But this here is the power of confabulation. The person who’s the mind has confabulated truly believes that what they remember is accurate. Confabulation has even been dubbed “honest lying” due to this. Unfortunately, this also makes it hard to identify whether someone’s memories are accurate or not.

 

You may not remember exactly what happened

Due to this, it can also have some serious effects that could impact other peoples lives. For example, let’s say Michelle witnesses a robbery from a store in her town. Since she was an eyewitness, she is then interviewed by the police so that they may find the suspect. The police may ask her what detail’s she remembers, and may even ask her to create a timeline of her day. However, let’s say that the police have an idea of who it could be, but there is no hard evidence against this person, they may try and influence Michelle’s answers through provoked confabulation. Or even if there is no malicious intent in the questions the police ask, it still may impact what she remembers. In one study, they found that when something appears likely to have happened, we are more willing to reduce our criteria to make a judgement of how accurate this information is. So, as a result, a witness will appear more confident if the scenario was likely to happen. Social psychologist Elizabeth Brimacombe explains in her ted talk that confidence can play a massive role in eyewitness testimony. However, despite this, accuracy does not necessarily increase. (There some other great blog posts to learn more about the complications of eyewitness testimony like this one!)

The consequences of provoked confabulation in such circumstances could be severe. If an eyewitness remembers a couple of details different to what happened, the wrong person may get convicted. Other situation could be that the case never gets solved since the recalled details do not match with the reality of the event. Unfortunately, confabulation has impacted real-life crimes, where some have even been completely fabricated! In one such case, criminal psychologist Julia Shaw heard of a case where two sisters reported that a female family friend sexually assaulted them both. However, after a lot of interviews and questions, Shaw concluded that the stories the sister were telling are not 100% true and that they were false memories. However, had no one been there to analyze their answers, then an innocent person could have gone to jail.

I hope it has become clear that confabulations are no joke. So the next time you are arguing with someone over who recalls a memory more accurate, remember that there is a very high chance that both you have confabulated.

Confabulations are unavoidable

 

References

Afrederick2001. (2020). I’ve attended a police station for a voluntary interview… but been arrested! Is this lawful? Retrieved from https://andrewfrederickblog.wordpress.com/2019/10/15/ive-attended-a-police-station-for-a-voluntary-interview-but-been-arrested-is-this-lawful/

Bryce, E. (2017, October 31). False memories and false confessions: The psychology of imagined crimes. Wired. https://www.wired.co.uk/article/false-memory-syndrome-false-confessions-memories

I know I’m right But I don’t know how to prove it or what to say – Mean Girls Meme. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://makeameme.org/meme/i-know-im-5cc1bd

TedxTalks (2014). Social influence and eyewitness testimony. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rzpgyIKBS40

Wade, K. A., Green, S. L., & Nash, R. A. (2009). Can fabricated evidence induce false eyewitness testimony? Applied Cognitive Psychology, 24(7), 899-908. doi:10.1002/acp.1607

What if my false memory is a false memory of a false memory?: Tumblr. (2018). Retrieved from https://knowyourmeme.com/photos/1026134-tumblr

Wiggins, A. (2020). Confabulation. NCBI. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK536961/

X, X Everywhere – Confabulations Confabulations … (n.d.). Retrieved from https://memegenerator.net/instance/64934951/x-x-everywhere-confabulations-confabulations-everywhere

Zaragoza, M. S., Payment, K. E., Ackil, J. K., Drivdahl, S. B., & Beck, M. (2001). Interviewing Witnesses: Forced Confabulation and Confirmatory Feedback Increase False Memories. Psychological Science, 12(6), 473-477. doi:10.1111/1467-9280.00388

Categories: Memory Tags: ,

Are you sure about that? How different lineup presentations affect eyewitness testimony

November 24th, 2020 No comments

Imagine that you find yourself being a stand-in for a police lineup, they called you in because you roughly match the profile of the suspect. Yet you know in your heart that you never committed the crime, you were sitting on your couch at the time that the crime occurred, but nobody could verify your whereabouts. You glance around at the other people in the lineup with you, and you notice that they bear a strange resemblance to you, like a bad photocopy. But you know that there is a possibility that the real suspect, the actual person who committed the crime is somewhere in the lineup. Behind the two way mirror stands a victim, pointing to your face and telling the detectives with earnest that it was you who they saw. Next thing you know, you are locked up in a prison cell in a scratchy uniform with dangerous criminals eyeing you up. For 15 years you maintain innocence and for 15 years you sit and wait for justice to be served. But it never does. You serve your full sentence for the murder of someone that you didn’t even know. 15 years of your life that you will never get back. Your reputation is ruined and there is no going back to the way things were before. False eyewitness identifications are the leading cause of wrongful convictions, most for major crimes such as murder and rape. And while you may be moping about that the entire criminal justice system failed YOU (and it most certainly did), the actual perpetrator is still walking free! This situation is exactly what Sir William Blackstone warned against in his famous statement that it is “It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer” – meaning that it is better to focus on finding those who are guilty but not at the expense that an innocent person should go to jail. 

A peep in a simultaneous line-up

The devastating consequences of arresting innocent people and locking them in jail for several years can be exemplified in the case of the Exonerated Five, in which five youth individuals who were African American and Hispanic were imprisoned for aggravated assault and rape of a jogger in Central Park (read more about them here). They served out their sentences before being exonerated when the true perpetrator confessed. Instead of going to high school and being a carefree teen like the rest of individuals in their age group (14-16), the Exonerated Five were sitting in prison for a crime they did not commit. Eyewitness identification did not play a role in this case, but the Exonerated Five exemplifies how harmful wrongful imprisonment is. As it relates to eyewitness identification, when the people in the lineup are a different race than the eyewitness, they are already at a disadvantage. The Own-Race Effect is the phenomenon that occurs when we can recognize people that are of our own race better than people of different races (read more here). This puts BIPOC (black/indigenous/people/of/color) at a higher risk of being misidentified, especially when the rates of black people getting arrested is disproportionately larger than any other raceHundreds of innocent people (a majority of them BIPOC) have been sent to jail for major crimes such as rape and murder on the basis of eyewitness testimony. The Innocence Project works at exonerating people stuck in this situation on the basis of DNA evidence.

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Reasons Behind One of the Many Reasons We Argue: Our Stories Don’t Match Up

November 23rd, 2020 No comments

Have you ever recalled an event with a relative or friend and you both think the other is making stuff up or that something was off with their side of the story? Maybe one of you was exaggerating or adding in details to make it sound better or cooler.

Recalling events such as a holiday gathering or a vacation can become skewed. Imagine that when you broke your arm many years ago, and you remember it happening because you tripped while walking backward while your sibling remembers it as them pushing you. When this event comes up, you both argue about what actually happened. Why do we remember things differently? 

Artist: Marie Ling

Constructive Memory

 

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Categories: Memory Tags: , ,

Brett Cohen? I Know Him. He’s Famous: Why Do We Recognize Unfamiliar “Celebrities” and Go Crazy for Them??

November 22nd, 2020 No comments

Hey You! (YES YOU!) Have you ever thought about being famous? Imagine when you are walking in the street, everybody goes crazy for you. They shout your name and ask for an autograph or a selfie with you. Woo, enjoy the fame and attention!

Have you ever dreamed of being FAMOUS? (Meme Generator)

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The Space-Time Continuum: How & Why to Space Your Time

November 22nd, 2020 No comments

We’ve all been there, even me. You might even be there right now.  You know the deal – it’s 10pm on a Sunday night.  You promised you would leave yourself time to study for your psychology exam, but you got caught up in weekend plans, the latest election news, and all of the other midterms you have to study for.  And let’s not forget about the two problem sets you also have due in the morning!  It seems that the hope you had when you first made that promise is slipping further and further down the drain.  Now, the exam is mere hours away, and it seems there’s nothing left to do but cram.  You stay up all night, attempting to review every single concept your professor introduced this semester.  You go through the motions of studying: rereading, highlighting, and underlining terms, as if to make up for the hours and days of lost time that you should have devoted to preparing for this exam.  

https://www.newcollege.utoronto.ca/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/demi-examcram-comic.png
Staying up late the night before an exam to cram is not an effective study strategy.

Fast forward to the exam itself, and on top of being exhausted, you’re struggling to recall what you reviewed.  You’re grasping at straws for answers, and it’s as if you have a general idea of what you want to say, but a solid understanding of the material simply isn’t there.  Even if you were able to remember a few things for this exam, the information you looked over is bound to follow the famed forgetting curve, and you’ll have to learn it all over again for the final exam (McBride & Cutting, 2019).   

https://www.gwern.net/images/spacedrepetition/scumbag-brain.png
The forgetting curve proposes that we forgot information very quickly after learning it.

So let’s rewind.  Say you could go back in time in time and prepare differently.  What would you do?  Would you know where to begin?  Getting your work done definitely isn’t always going to be a fun experience, but there are absolutely alternative approaches to this that can help make the experience less stressful, and even better – more effective.  Studying can seem like a daunting task, especially when it is for something as all-encompassing as a big exam.  Especially for us college students, it can be extremely difficult to block off huge chunks in our busy schedules to devote to studying for one class, especially when these schedules also include sports, clubs, meals, and sleep.  To let you in on a helpful little secret: the best way to study is actually not to do this.  The spacing effect, a finding by psychologist Herman Ebbinghaus, lets us in on some helpful knowledge about good study habits.  Ebbinghaus demonstrated that the most effective way to retain information is to gradually study it in small chunks over time, as opposed to in mass amounts (McBride & Cutting, 2019).  

It turns out that Ebbinghaus was right on target when he proposed that our memories depend upon our attention and interest in the subject we are studying, along with the amount of information we aim to learn as compared to the time we have allowed ourselves to learn it (Ebbinghaus, 2013).  Over the years, studies have shown again and again that the spacing effect, especially when combined with other effective learning strategies, is proven to be the best study schedule for long term retention of information.  

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Spacing is a much more effective study strategy than last-minute cramming.

To begin with, spacing mitigates the learning process in general.  Doesn’t it sound more appealing to do a little bit of studying every day?  Who really has the time to devote an entire night to studying – especially when that night is right before the exam and you should be asleep.  A 2016 study at Columbia University found that, in terms of recall, it is actually more efficient to commit yourself to learning at spaced intervals than in mass amounts (Metcalfe & Xu, 2016).  Metcalfe and Xu presented subjects with multiple works by different artists either in a massed study condition or a spaced condition.  The massed condition participants were shown all of the works of art they were supposed to study successively, while the spaced condition participants were shown the works of art by the target artist mixed in with works by other artists.  All participants were later asked to identify works of art by the artist that they had studied during the presentation phase.  The researchers found that the massed learning participants were more likely to lapse their attention while the works of art were being presented, resulting in a tendency to mind wander.  The spaced learning participants exhibited a higher sustainability of attention, suggesting that mind wandering can be inhibited by gradual learning of new information (Metcalfe & Xu, 2016).  The results of this study suggest not only that mass study is not very effective, but that it might even be a waste of time.  Why commit yourself to learning more information at once, especially when this could take up so much more of your time, especially after accounting for the mind wandering that’s sure to happen?

The 2012 study Distributing Learning Over Time: The Spacing Effect in Children’s Acquisition and Generalization of Science Concepts also demonstrates some of the implications of the spacing effect – this time with elementary school student subjects.  Vlach and Sandhofer presented these children with three schedules of learning for the same amount of target information: massed study in one day, clumped study over two consecutive days, and spaced study over four consecutive days.  The researchers found that there was a significant relationship between the degree of the spacing of the subjects’ learning schedules and their ability to make generalizations about the information they had learned (Vlach & Sandhofer, 2012).  For example, the students who learned about food chains in the spaced study condition were able to make inferences later on about the placement of a new animal on a food chain based on its size, exhibiting their knowledge about the relationship between animal size and biome hierarchy.  The results of this study are particularly important as they reveal that differences in information retention exist as a result of various schedules of spaced study.  These findings are consistent with the idea that spaced study facilitates long-term retention of meaningful knowledge.  Vlach and Sanhofer’s study revealed that the students who studied in congruence with the spacing effect understood the information they had learned at a deeper level than those who did not, and could therefore make accurate inferences when tested on it (Vlach & Sandhofer, 2012).  And so, a light at the end of the dark tunnel of studying is revealed!  Spacing your learning over even just a couple of days as opposed to doing it all the night before the test can yield significant results.

Don’t get too excited, though.  The spacing effect isn’t going to solve all of your problems.  It is a common misconception that spacing can be applied to the target information in a sequenced study schedule (Kornell, 2014).  And so, not to be the bearer of bad news, but this means that in order to effectively study for your 10-unit exam, you need to space out the collective studying of the material over the time period you’ve allowed yourself.  It’s not much use studying all of unit 1 a week before the exam if you never circle back and review it.  

So how exactly does spacing translate that mountain of studying you have into a true, solid understanding of the material?  One of spacing’s main benefits is that it helps construct more varied retrieval cues than would exist in a cramming scenario.  Retrieval cues are stimuli that initiate access to learned information that has been stored in the long term memory (McBride & Cutting, 2019).  When we study at different times in different environments, we increase the likelihood that we will be able to recall that information at a later point, from any environment at any time.   Therefore, it is best to study under a variety of circumstances, in order to create as many retrieval cues as possible.  

Now that we understand what’s actually going on when we space, let’s move on to the best ways to ensure that you’re utilizing the benefits of this effect in their entirety.  Spacing is nothing without effective study techniques!

A significant factor that goes hand in hand with the spacing effect is chunking.  By separating the information you want to learn into organized chunks, it can be more easily processed and recalled later on, after practicing.  Chunks are defined by meaningful characteristics that describe the information contained within them.  The limitations of our working memory capacity relies on chunking to process information by association (Fonollosa et al., 2015)

In 2009, an education program developed by B. Price Kerfoot, demonstrated the improved recall ability that results from spaced study.  In Kerfoot’s program, students learned information that had been broken down into manageable chunks.  The students were then introduced to these chunks over specified time intervals, which ended up increasing their knowledge of the presented information by up to 50%.  There was also evidence from studies with Kerfoot’s program that learning by spacing with chunks strengthened memory traces to the target information for up to two years (Lambert, 2009).  

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Chunking similar information makes it easier to process the concepts you are attempting to learn.

Kerfoot’s program also involved another crucial factor in successful learning: processing for meaning.  Cognitive psychology involves a model that explains learning by levels of processing.  This model, developed by Craik & Lockhart in 1972, proposes that recall of information from memory is directly related to the depth of processing that occurred when that information was learned (McBride & Cutting, 2019).  Essentially, the more effort you put into learning, the better you will retain it.  In Kerfoot’s learning program, he witnessed an enhancement of students’ encoding of the information they were learning as a result of presenting it in quiz or test formats.  Known as the testing effect, this type of learning allows for some forgetting and relearning of the information to take place, effectively securing the information over time.  

Deep processing of information also occurs as a result of elaborative rehearsal.  Elaborative rehearsal is a learning strategy in which an association is actively made between information already secured in the long term memory and the novel information currently being learned.  In contrast to the mere repetition seen in other, less effective study strategies, such as rote rehearsal, elaborative rehearsal of information over time has been found to be significantly beneficial in storing and securing learned information into the long term memory.  By attaching meaning to what you are learning, you are effectively processing it at a deeper level, and therefore, will store it more securely in your long term memory.

These study strategies are of the utmost importance, especially now, in a time when so much of our academic success depends on Zoom meetings, online quizzes, and asynchronous courses.  It can be so easy to slip into a cycle of last minute massed study so you can complete assignments in the moment, but it would be a shame to waste an entire semester of learning this way.  A recent study, Self-Regulated Spacing in a Massive Open Online Course is Related to Better Learning, demonstrated the effectiveness of spacing in the context of self-regulated, student scheduled learning.  The researchers found that students who spaced their learning in online activities over time saw higher quiz and exam scores than those who attempted to complete them all at once (Carvalho, 2020).  

Think about how easy it is to remember all of the lyrics to your favorite songs when you’re singing them in a car full of friends.  Why is this?  If we apply the spacing effect to this scenario, it is clear that the reason you have such a deep, extensive knowledge of these songs lyrics is because you practice them constantly over time (most likely, a little bit every couple of days if it’s your all-time favorite song).  Sound familiar?  That’s exactly what you should be doing when the goal is topic mastery for your final exam!

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Continuous practice over time is the best way to secure information into your long term memory.

 

References

Carvalho, P.F., et al. (2020).  Self-regulated spacing in a massive open online course is related to better learning. Npj Science
of Learning
, vol. 5, no. 1, doi:10.1038/s41539-020-0061-1. 

Ebbinghaus, H. (2013). Memory: a Contribution to experimental psychology. Annals of Neurosciences, vol. 20, no. 4, doi:10.5214/ans.0972.7531.200408. 

Fonollosa, J, et al. (2015).  “Learning of chunking sequences in cognition and behavior.” PLOS Computational Biology, vol. 11, no. 11, doi:10.1371/journal.pcbi.1004592. 

McBride, D.M., & Cutting, J.C. (2019). Cognitive psychology: Theory, process, and methodology. Sage Publications, Inc.

Kornell, N. (2014).  Four things scientists get wrong about spacing effects. Psychology Today.

Lambert, C. (2009).  Learning by degrees. Harvard Magazine

Metcalfe, J, & Xu, J. (2016).  People Mind Wander More during Massed than Spaced Inductive Learning.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, vol. 42, no. 6, pp. 978–984., doi:10.1037/xlm0000216. 

Vlach, H. A., & Sandhofer, C. M. (2012). Distributing learning over time: The spacing effect in children’s acquisition and generalization of science concepts. PubMed Central U.S. National Institutes of Health’s National Library of Medicine, 1-11. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2012.01781.x

Your Horoscope for Today: You may or may not delete Costar from your phone

November 21st, 2020 No comments


Maybe you have read somewhere that those who take astrology seriously are suckers and are prone to a variety of human biases. Maybe you yourself have made fun of that one friend in the group who seems to take the “star sign thing” way too seriously and who is ready to choose a life partner by their chart compatibility. And maybe despite that, like me and countless other people, when you come across a “reading” or a horoscope prediction, you read every word intently to see if they match you. Or maybe you have gone through your day with a mental note to check what from the horoscope you read that morning aligns with your reality. And maybe you’ve done this a few times: sucked your teeth when you read the horoscope for a day that has just ended but see that not a single thing on there lines up with the day you have just had. And maybe after that, you swore never to read the damn things again. But if I asked you right now when last you opened the notifications from the Costar app or ran a google search for a birth chart analysis of yourself, you would probably squirm and say a few days ago.

Most of us know vaguely that astrology is not a reliable source of information. There is strong evidence that astrology cannot reliably predict human behaviour. If you’ve ever filled out a form for a birth chart, you know that you need to provide information about your birth time. Research was done that reliably found birth chart twins and their data was checked to see how much their lives, interests and outcomes overlapped(Komath, 2009). There was no strong evidence supporting the predictions multiple astrologers made about these subjects with their birth charts. So despite the prominence of the fact that astrology should not be believed, why do many people still take it seriously? Certain other phenomena must be in place that let us fall prey to the readings given by astrological publications. Our likelihood to believe in astrological claims has been attributed to the “Barnum effect” named after the T.P. Barnum of circus fame who is quoted as saying “There’s a sucker born every minute”. The Barnum effect refers to the tendency for people to give high accuracy ratings to personality descriptions that, although said to be unique, can apply to the general population(reference). So for this blog post, I thought I would go about understanding the underlying mechanisms to the Barnum effect.

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Where Have All The Memories Gone?

November 21st, 2020 No comments

Where Have All The Memories Gone?

 

I was inspired to write this blog post by something I saw in one of my favorite TV shows, Full House. DJ Tanner was asked if she remembered someone. She’s currently 10 and was 5 years old when she last saw the person. When she said no, her dad said “Don’t worry about it DJ. You were only 5 years old.” Her younger sister then said “I’m 5! Does that mean I won’t remember any of this?” As I watched that scene in the TV show, I realized how common this situation is. Imagine this scenario. You’re at your annual family reunion looking for where the food is being served and a woman you swear you have never seen before walks up to you. She gives you a big hug and tells you she’s missed you so much. “I remember when you were just learning how to walk!” She says. “You’re so big now! Do you remember me?” You smile and nod as she gives you another hug even though you have no idea who this is. Maybe you’ve experienced this or maybe you’ve experienced something similar in a different way. When I was five years old, my father abandoned my family and I. 15 years later, I struggle to remember my memories with him or even how he looked. What happens to those memories of the random woman at the family reunion? And what happened to those memories of people we lost at a young age?
I just recently watched an episode of one of my favorite shows called Full House and DJ Tanner was asked if she remembered someone. She’s currently 10 and was 5 years old when she last saw the person. When she said no, her dad said “Don’t worry about it DJ. You were only 5 years old.” Her younger sister then said “I’m 5! Does that mean I won’t remember any of this?” It’s honestly a very good question.

The reason why these stories are so relatable is that it happens to everyone. It’s a common phenomenon called childhood amnesia. This occurs when human adults have trouble remembering anything from the ages of 0-3 and only a surface level recollection of memories before the age of 10. We see these effects mainly with episodic memories, which are memories of specific events. Even though we can’t remember these memories, our memories from early infancy and childhood still affect us. There are tons of studies telling parents to do certain activities with their children because of how much of an effect these things will have on the child as they mature into an adult. Newcombe did a study in 2009 about how early childhood memories can influence our decisions without us even knowing it. In this study, children were given a face recognition test for their preschool classmates. They all claimed that they couldn’t remember who their classmates were in preschool but some children were still able to “guess” which pictures were the faces of children that were in their class while all of the children exhibited a skin conductance response to the faces of old classmates. (Newcombe, 2009).
If these episodic memories are affecting how we decide certain things, you would think we would be able to remember them at least a little bit. However, if it affects us, did we forget anything? Evidence in a study done by Callaghan and colleagues suggests that a neural trace of these memories still exists even if we are unable to recall these memories. In other words, the memories are still present but as a neural trace. (Callaghan et.al, 2014) The definition of forgetting is “failing to remember.” To remember something, you have to retrieve that memory from long term memory. Since we are unable to remember, we are indeed forgetting these memories. However, this evidence suggests that we are not forgetting because the memory no longer exists but rather because something is stopping us from retrieving that information.
Retrieval is extremely important in the memory process. Have you ever tried to remember something you know and just can’t? It feels like it’s on the tip of your tongue but you can’t quite say it. Then someone else says it and you say “I knew it!” In those scenarios, you’ll usually have trouble retrieving the information. Retrieval can be affected by a lot of things, like the amount of attention you gave to what you are trying to recall while you were learning that material. The main question that came up and was left unanswered for Callaghan and her colleagues was why we are not able to retrieve these memories.
Research done a few years later found more evidence supporting the “memory trace” theory and also found a possible explanation for why we have trouble retrieving these memories. (Travaglia, et. al, 2016) Travalgia and colleagues did a study on rats that proved an experience from early childhood was stored as a memory trace. The researchers used 17-24 day old rats and testing the likelihood that the rats would return to an area in which they were previously shocked. There were two compartments and a door separating both compartments. The first compartment is where the rat is initially placed. When the rat enters the second compartment, the door is closed and the rat is shocked on the foot. They are then tested later to see whether the rats will enter the second compartment. Some rats were trained to remember the shocking while other rats only experienced the shocking experience one time and other rats (the control) did not experience the foot shock at all. They found that when the rats were trained to remember there was a shocking would remember not to go into the second compartment but would rapidly forget (about 1 day later). They also tested whether a contextual reminder or a shock-reminder would reinstate the memory. While the contextual reminder did not, when the rats were shocked again, it reinstated the memory. They had similar results to how they acted right after they were trained.
The research team determined that this was not a problem with creating long-lasting memories but rather a problem with retrieving those memories. Since the hippocampus is so important in creating long-lasting memories, it is suggested that this problem occurs due to the lack of development in the hippocampus at such a young age. (The rats were 17-22 years old.) They support this with evidence from other researchers that found that rats are not able to do hippocampal-dependent learning at 22 days or less old. (Dumas et.al, 2010).
Another research team suggests that the high levels of neurogenesis during infancy can be the reasoning behind our poor memory recall as infants and children. (Frankland and Josselyn, 2012) Through their research, they found that as neurogenesis decreases with age, the ability to form memories increased. This is very similar to the theory Travaglia and her colleagues discussed. They both found evidence that suggests the amount of development happening in the brain during infancy and childhood is the reasoning behind the lack of or hindrance in the retrieval of early memories.
To summarize, the evidence from these studies suggests that all the memories from our childhood and infancy that we struggle to remember or simply can’t remember are still available to us. However, we are not able to retrieve these memories. The reasoning behind this is our hippocampus was still under development when we formed these memories. That’s why you can’t remember that person from your family reunion who claims to have known you since you were a baby. These revelations are very important in understanding how our early memories, both the ones we can and cannot retrieve, can affect you. Learning that these memories are still present and why we can’t reach them answers a lot of questions but also creates a lot more questions. So to answer the question the title of the blog asks, our memories from childhood have not gone anywhere. However, they’re harder to retrieve.

References

  1. Alberini, C. M., & Travaglia, A. (2017). Infantile amnesia: A critical period of learning to learn and remember. The Journal of Neuroscience, 37(24), 5783–5795. https://doi-org.colby.idm.oclc.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0324-17.2017
  2. Travaglia, A., Bisaz, R., Sweet, E. S., Blitzer, R. D., & Alberini, C. M. (2016). Infantile amnesia reflects a developmental critical period for hippocampal learning. Nature Neuroscience, 19(9), 1225–1233. https://doi-org.colby.idm.oclc.org/10.1038/nn.4348
  3. Li, S., Callaghan, B. L., & Richardson, R. (2014). Infantile amnesia: Forgotten but not gone. Learning & Memory, 21(3), 135–139. https://doi-org.colby.idm.oclc.org/10.1101/lm.031096.113
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