Pavlov's Couch

A Psychology Student's Mental Experience

Memory Experiment

Yesterday and today I took part in an experiment that looks at memory. I can’t go into much detail because the experiment is still being carried out with other participants, but I would like to give you an idea.

At the start of the experiment I was read twelve words, then asked to recite them. If I missed any I was reminded of them then asked to recite the list again until I could reel off all the words twice without missing any. I actually used a memory technique to help me remember: I turned the list of words into a story which I visualized in my head.

Next I was shown a series of pictures, each depicting an object. I think there were about fifteen to twenty. Once I had seen them all I was shown another series of pictures and for each one I was to indicate whether I had seen the presented object in the previous set or not. I got a perfect score on this one, once again helped out by a bit of storytelling. Next this was repeated with faces and I didn’t do as well – I didn’t “recognise” any I hadn’t seen but I did fail to recognise several I had seen!

Up next came a drawing task. I was shown a drawing, something called a Rey-Osterrieth Complex Figure which was designed as a test of “visuospatial abilities, memory, attention, planning, and working memory”. First I cold copy out the figure while looking at it, then I had to do so from memory, and finally again after performing another task in meantime. I would love to learn more about this test and how it is scored!

The final test on that day was based on memorising objects and positions. A 2×2 grid was laid out on a table and two chairs in front facing diagonally on to the table. I was then asked to sit in one of the chairs and close my eyes while two objects we’re laid out somewhere on the grid. I was then instructed to open my eyes and was told what category the objects fit into such as “kitchen” or “animals”. This was repeated a number of times with different objects, categories, positions, and with me sat in a different of tho two seats. At the end I was given a category name and asked to remember what the objects were, where I was sat, and where on the grid the objects were placed. I did surprisingly well at this, managing to remember everything for almost all the trials and even remembering a lot of details that were not necessary, such as “there was a green and black tractor there with a man inside wearing a blue and black outfit” or “there was a Palmolive Naturals hand soap there, milk and honey”.

The next stage of the experiment came the next day when I was fed into an fMRI scanner (which had been upgraded since my last visit!) this time I was shown photos of objects on the 2×2 grid taken from the position of one of the two chairs, and I had to indicate whether it was the same as I had previously seen, and how confident I was in my answer. Despite being so tired that day that I actually fell asleep in the machine and missed at least one question (I suddenly woke up to see the screen asking me how confident I was in my answer when I hadn’t consciously seen any scene!), I did rather well.

The strange thing is I am sure I have a poor memory. I forget a LOT of things, and have particularly poor retention for faces, names, and dates. Yet for objects and scenes, particularly in short term or working memory, I seem to perform fairly well. I think part of it may come down to focused attention – I was actively trying to notice and memorise details whereas usually I wouldn’t even notice them.

It got me thinking about my memory quite a bit. And it doesn’t hurt that I earned £15 and get a copy of my brain on disc!

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