Pavlov's Couch

A Psychology Student's Mental Experience

Archive for the tag “memory”

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!

Revision Tips #1 – Memory

A big part of studying is about remembering. Of course you have to then be critical, evaluate the arguments, and so on, but if you can’t remember any of the arguments or the evidence you are pretty stuck! So I’ve put together this post with lots of empirically supported information about memory to help you tackle your revision. I hope you find this useful, and if you do please rate the article using the stars at the bottom, and maybe leave a comment with some tips of your own!

Can remembering make you forget?
If we repeatedly attempt to retrieve a memory we improve our ability to do so in the long term. This is called the testing effect. However it has a side effect that you may not know about – it can actually reduce our ability to recall those things that we have not “tested” ourselves on (Anderson et al., 1994). However in contrast it has also been found to improve recall of non-tested material in certain instances (). Chan (2009) conducted some experiments to determine under which conditions each of these occured, and although I will not go into the detailed description (which would require explaining the van Dijk & Kintsch (1983) text processing model, which I am not convinced I really understand myself!) the summary seems to be that the more we can integrate what we are learning with existing knowledge the better we will be at remembering it. However learning independent facts that are unrelated and difficult to integrate into our existing knowledge can lead to the forgetting effect.
So what do we do with that?
When you are revising, remember to link things together as much as possible. Do not learn things individually, but relate them to each other. For example when learning about the van Dijk & Kintsch (1983) text processing model I could compare it to other models, and think about how it fits into the wider context of our ability to read.

Despite many claims in both directions, Nehlig (2010) reported that caffeine has inconcistent effects on memory and attention, with no benefits being seen from intentionally learned data. Mednick et al. (2008) also reported that caffeine had minimal impact on memory and motor performance tasks compared to napping.
It should also be noted that the impact of caffeine on sleep may have a subsequent impact on memory and recall. The general advice seems to be that you should only consume caffeine first thing in the morning, if at all.

Van Der Werf et al. (2009) found that it isn’t just the amount of sleep you get that is important for good memory and recall, but also the type. Shallow sleep (caused by disrupted sleep) leeds to weaker subsequent hippocampal activation compared to participants who experienced deep sleep.
So it is important not only to get enough sleep (and ignore what people say about a minimum of 8 hours, everyone is different and requires a different amount of sleep), it is also important to ensure you get good quality sleep. This means avoiding stimulants like caffiene and nicotine before you sleep, avoiding eating just before bed, and having a quiet place to sleep among other things. Have a look at this page on Sleep Hygiene for more information.

Cue-Dependent Memory
Everyone has heard that you remember things better in the same environment that you learned them in. This is called reinstatement effect (as in, the learning environment is reinstated at recall) or cue-dependent memory). This theory has a long history, perhaps most famously demonstrated by Godden and Baddeley (1975) who had participants memorise word lists underwater then found that they recalled those lists better underwater than on land. There is a long controversy around these findings, with many studies failing to replicate the results in a variety of environmental conditions, however an in-depth meta-analysis by Smith & Vela (2001) has shown reliable results so maybe there is something in it after all.
However it has also been claimed (Carey, 2010) that varying your learning environment improves subsequent recall, possibly by building more associations in your memory.
So what do we do with this?
You should ideally keep environmental distractors to a minimum anyway as things like music, TV, etc. draw your attention away from what you are learning and studies have shown that divided attention leads to poorer memory encoding. However there may be an added benefit here to matching the environment to your test condition (the quiet of an exam hall for example). I have also seen suggestions that wearing a specific perfume or cologne while revising then wearing that same one in the exams may help – however I have not seen any empirical evidence of this!

Spaced Learning
Screenshot of the Mnemosyne softwareA long long time ago, Ebbinghaus (1913) discovered that learning could be significantly improved by correctly spacing practice sessions, however his techniques failed to gain the popularity they deserve. More recently Piotr Wozniak performed research into finding the optimal spacing for retention, and developed an algorithm which he built into his software SuperMemo. The algorithm has also been adapted and included in the free software Mnemosyne which is available for Windows, Mac, and Linux.
Using this software you can test yourself regularly in a way that is evidence-based to give you the best recall. Mnemosyne is very simple to use, and you can even get an add on which works on Android phones so you can test yourself any time.

Related to this Taylor (2010) also found that practicing different skills in an interwoven spaced approach rather than as one block improved performance. So rather than spending a whole day learning one topic, you are better off mixing things up a bit!

Anderson, M. C., Bjork, R. A., & Bjork, E. L. (1994). Remembering can cause forgetting: Retrieval dynamics in long-term memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 20, 1063–1087.

Carey, B., 2010 Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits. New York Times. Accessed: 20-Apr-2012

Chan, J.C.K., 2009. When does retrieval induce forgetting and when does it induce facilitation? Implications for retrieval inhibition, testing effect, and text processing. Journal of Memory and Language, 61(2), pp.153-170.

Ebbinghaus, H., Ruger, H. Alford. (1913). Memory: a contribution to experimental psychology. New York: Teachers College, Columbia University.

Godden,D. R., & Baddeley,A. D. (1975). Context-dependent memory in two natural environments: Land and underwater. British Journal of Psychology, 66, 325-331.

Mednick, S.C. et al., 2008. Comparing the benefits of caffeine, naps and placebo on verbal, motor and perceptual memory. Behavioural brain research, 193(1), pp.79-86.

Nehlig, A., 2010. Is caffeine a cognitive enhancer? Journal of Alzheimer’s disease : JAD, 20 Suppl 1, pp.S85-94.

Smith, S.M. & Vela, E., 2001. Environmental context-dependent memory: a review and meta-analysis. Psychonomic bulletin & review, 8(2), pp.203-20.

Taylor, K. & Rohrer, D., 2010. The effects of interleaved practice. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 24, pp.837-848.

Van Der Werf, Y.D. et al., 2009. Sleep benefits subsequent hippocampal functioning. Nature neuroscience, 12(2), pp.122-3.

van Dijk, T. A., & Kintsch, W. (1983). Strategies of discourse comprehension. New York: Academic Press.

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