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How selective memory makes the brain more like a camera than a computer

Posted on 01-29-15 in Mental Health

selective memory

While memory has generally been believed to more or less be like a cheap but always-on camera, new research has shown that even the simplest details can be forgotten if the record button is not “turned on” first. A Pennsylvania State University study has found that memory may be far more selective than previously thought, with awareness alone of whether or not one has to remember something dictating much of what actually gets retained.

Published in the journal Psychological Science, the study involved a test group of 100 undergraduate students divided into several groups, with each one performing a variation of the experiment in order to replicate the results for different kinds of information (i.e. numbers, letters or colors). In each trial, the students were shown four characters on a screen with different variations such as three numbers and one letter, reporting on which corner the different one was in after a set amount of time (in this case, the letter). Although this phase was relatively easy with a very low error rate from the students, the authors repeated it several more times.

Eventually, the participants were asked an unexpected question: which number, letter or color was the “odd man out” in the previous question. Only 25 percent of the students were able to correctly identify it, roughly the same probability if they had randomly guessed. After the initial surprise question, the exact same one was repeated again on the next trial; however, the participants did better when they were somewhat prepared for it, with the average of correct answers rising to 65-95 percent across the various trials.

“This result is surprising because traditional theories of attention assume that when a specific piece of information is attended, that information is also stored in memory and, therefore, participants should have done better on the surprise memory test.” said Dr. Brad Wyble, assistant professor of psychology at Pennsylvania State and co-author of the study.

The study’s findings suggest that people’s expectations play a more considerable role in determining what they remember than had initially been thought, posing major ramifications on the way we learn and retain information.

Attribute amnesia and hypervigilance

The researchers refer to the phenomenon of forgetting information that is deemed unimportant as “attribute amnesia.” Attribute amnesia occurs when a person uses a piece of information to perform a task, but is unable to specifically recall what that information was (as little as one second later in some cases).

Taking into consideration past studies linking emotions to memory (especially negative ones), the Pennsylvania State study may have inadvertently corroborated that theory. If someone is aware that they are going to “have” to remember something they see (especially if they were pseudo-penalized for it like they were in the study), there will likely be some mild anxiety from the anticipation of having to do so.

Although the most common solution to forgetfulness (according to this study) would be to be more vigilant in general, increasing the likelihood that the mind would deem something memorable, the authors also suggests that our selective memories may have adapted to prevent excess information from taking up cognitive resources. Also, being constantly aware that one has to retain something is a slippery slope to not only stress and anxiety, but hypervigilance and the issues that can come along with that as well.

The authors plan to expand on this line of research in the future by studying whether people are aware of their own lack of memory, examining the connection further between conscious awareness of having to remember and actual memory.

At Sovereign Health Group, we know how important the mind really is in our everyday lives. That is why we strive to further understand it and use the knowledge we gain in order to better the lives of our patients.

Written by Chase Beckwith, Sovereign Health Group writer