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help your memory by using physical reminders

Why your knowledge of normal aging memory matters

I’ve discussed on a number of occasions the effects that stereotypes can have on our cognitive performance. Women, when subtly reminded that females are supposedly worse at math, do more poorly on math tests; African-Americans, when subtly reminded of racial stereotypes, perform more poorly on academic tests. And beliefs about the effect of aging similarly affect memory and cognition in older adults.

Your beliefs matter. In the same way that those who believe that intelligence is fixed tend to disengage when something is challenging, while those who believe that intelligence is malleable keep working, believing that more time and effort will yield better results (see Fluency heuristic is not everyone’s rule and Regulating your study time and effort for more on this), older adults who believe that declining faculties are an inevitable consequence of aging are less inclined to make efforts to counter any decline.

Moreover, if you believe that your memory will get progressively and noticeably worse as you get older, then you will tend to pay more attention to, and give more weight to, your memory failures. This will reinforce your beliefs, and so on, feeding back on itself. Bear in mind that we all, at every age, suffer memory failures! Forgetting things is not in itself a sign of age-related decline.

It’s important, therefore, that people have a realistic idea of what to expect in ‘normal’ aging. In the course of writing a short book on this topic (it will be out, I hope, early in the new year), I came across the Knowledge of Memory Aging Questionnaire (KMAQ). Research using this questionnaire has revealed the interesting finding that people know more about pathological memory aging than they do about normal memory aging.

You may find it interesting to know some of the questions, and how likely people are to get them right. So, let's look at one of these studies, involving 150 people, divided evenly into three age-groups (40-59; 60-79; 80+).

The oldest-old scored significantly more poorly than the other two groups, although the differences weren’t great (65% correct vs 70% and 69%). There was no overall difference between genders, but males were significantly more likely to answer “Don’t know” to questions about pathological memory.

But if we focus only on the subset of four questions that relate to stereotypes about normal aging in memory, there is much greater difference between the age groups (78% correct, 69%, 52%, for middle age, young-old, and oldest-old, respectively). These are the four questions (the answers are all “false”):

  • Regardless of how memory is tested, younger adults will remember far more material than older adults.
  • If an older adult is unable to recall a specific fact (e.g., remembering a person’s name), then providing a cue to prompt or jog the memory is unlikely to help.
  • When older people are trying to memorize new information, the way they study it does not affect how much they will remember later.
  • Memory training programs are not helpful for older persons, because the memory problems that occur in old age cannot be improved by educational methods.

Only one of these questions was reliably answered correctly, and that only by the middle-age adults (If an older adult is unable to recall a specific fact, then providing a cue to prompt or jog the memory is unlikely to help.)

Looking at the individual questions, it’s interesting to see that the different age-groups show different patterns of knowledge. Middle-age adults were most likely to answer the following questions correctly (between 45 and 42 of the 50 answered correctly):

  • [Q18] Signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease show up gradually and become more noticeable to family members and close friends over time. (true)
  • [Q17] Memory for how to do well-learned things, such as reading a map or riding a bike, does not change very much, if at all, in later adulthood. (true)
  • [Q1] “A picture is worth a thousand words” in that it is easier for both younger and older people to remember pictures than to remember words. (true)
  • If an older adult is unable to recall a specific fact (e.g., remembering a person’s name), then providing a cue to prompt or jog the memory is unlikely to help. (false)

Young-old adults also scored highly on Q17 and Q1, but their other top-scorers were:

  • [Q21] If an older person has gone into another room and cannot remember what he or she had intended to do there, going back to the place where the thought first come to mind will often help one recall what he or she had intended to do. (true)
  • Confusion and memory lapses in older people can sometimes be due to physical conditions that doctors can treat so that these symptoms go away over time. (true)

The oldest-old agreed that Q21 and Q18 were easy ones (indeed, 48 and 47 got these questions right), but after that, their next top-scorer was:

  • Lifelong alcoholism may result in severe memory problems in old age. (true)

Although average education levels were similar for the three age-groups, there was greater variability within the oldest-old — 9 didn’t finish high school, but 20 had tertiary degrees. In comparison, only one middle-aged and one young-old adult didn’t finish high school. The finding that the oldest-old were more likely to answer according to stereotypes of aging memory may therefore reflect, at least in part, the lower education of some individuals.

But let’s go back to my earlier comment that those who believe poorer memory is inevitable with age give more weight to their failures while being less inclined to deal with them. This study did indeed find that changes in memory test performance over five years were correlated with subjective memory complaints, but not with use of external aids. That is, people who were forgetting more, and noticing that they were forgetting more, did not engage in greater use of strategies that would help them remember.

Something to think about!

My Memory Journal


Hawley, K. S., Cherry K. E., Su J. L., Chiu Y. - W., & Jazwinski M. S. (2006). Knowledge of memory aging in adulthood. International Journal of Aging & Human Development. 63(4), 317 - 334.

Taking things too seriously

I was listening to a podcast the other day. Two psychologists (Andrew Wilson and Sabrina Galonka) were being interviewed about embodied cognition, a topic I find particularly interesting. As an example of what they meant by embodied cognition (something rather more specific than the fun and quirky little studies that are so popular nowadays — e.g., making smaller estimations of quantities when leaning to the left; squeezing a soft ball making it more likely that people will see gender neutral faces as female while squeezing a hard ball influences them to see the faces as male; holding a heavier clipboard making people more likely to judge currencies as more valuable and their opinions and leaders as more important), they mentioned the outfielder problem. Without getting into the details (if you’re interested, the psychologists have written a good article on it on their blog), here’s what I took away from the discussion:

We used to think that, in order to catch a ball, our brain was doing all these complex math- and physics-related calculations — try programming a robot to do this, and you’ll see just how complex the calculations need to be! And of course this is that much more complicated when the ball isn’t aimed at you and is traveling some distance (the outfielder problem).

Now we realize it’s not that complicated — our outfielder is moving, and this is the crucial point. Apparently (according to my understanding), if he moves at the right speed to make his perception of the ball’s speed uniform (the ball decelerates as it goes up, and accelerates as it comes down, so the catcher does the inverse: running faster as the ball rises and slower as it falls), then — if he times it just right — the ball will appear to be traveling a straight line, and the mental calculation of where it will be is simple.

(This, by the way, is what these psychologists regard as ‘true’ embodied cognition — cognition that is the product of a system that includes the body and the environment as well as the brain.)

This idea suggests two important concepts that are relevant to those wishing to improve their memory:

We (like all animals) have been shaped by evolution to follow the doctrine of least effort. Mental processing doesn’t come cheap! If we can offload some of the work to other parts of the system, then it’s sensible to do so.

In other words, there’s no great moral virtue in insisting on doing everything mentally. Back in the day (2,500 odd years ago), it was said that writing things down would cause people to lose their ability to remember (in Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates has the Egyptian god-pharaoh say to Thoth, the god who invented writing, “this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves.”)

This idea has lingered. Many people believe that writing reminders to oneself, or using technology to remember for us, ‘rots our brains’ and makes us incapable of remembering for ourselves.

But here’s the thing: the world is full of information. And it is of varying quality and importance. You might feel that someone should be remembering certain information ‘for themselves’, but this is a value judgment, not (as you might believe) a helpful warning that their brain is in danger of atrophying itself into terminal dysfunction. The fact is, we all choose what to remember and what to forget — we just might not have made a deliberate and conscious choice. Improving your memory begins with this: actually thinking about what you want to remember, and practicing the strategies that will help you do just that.

However, there’s an exception to the doctrine of least effort, and it’s evident among all the animals with sufficient cognitive power — fun. All of us who have enough brain power to spare, engage in play. Play, we are told, has a serious purpose. Young animals play to learn about the world and their own capabilities. It’s a form, you might say, of trial-&-error — but a form with enjoyability built into the system. This enjoyability is vital, because it motivates the organism to persist. And persistence is how we discover what works, and how we get the practice to do it well.

What distinguishes a good outfielder from someone who’s never tried to catch a ball before? Practice. To judge the timing, to get the movement just right — movement which will vary with every ball — you need a lot of practice. You can’t just read about what to do. And that’s true of every physical skill. Less obviously, it’s true of cognitive skills also.

It also ties back to what I was saying about trying to achieve flow. If you’re not enjoying what you’re doing, it’s probably either too easy or too hard for you. If it’s too easy, try and introduce some challenge into it. If it’s too hard, break it down into simpler components and practice them until you have achieved a higher level of competence on them.

Enjoyability is vital for learning well. So don’t knock fun. Don’t think play is morally inferior. Instead, try and incorporate a playful element into your work and study (there’s a balance, obviously!). If you have hobbies you enjoy, think about elements you can carry across to other activities (if you don’t have a hobby you enjoy, perhaps you should start by finding one!).

So the message for today is: the holy grail in memory and learning is NOT to remember everything; the superior approach to work / study / life is NOT total mastery and serious dedication. An effective memory is one that remembers what you want/need it to remember. Learning occurs through failure. Enjoyability greases the path to the best learning and the most effective activity.

Let focused fun be your mantra.

Finding the right strategy through perception and physical movement

I talk a lot about how working memory constrains what we can process and remember, but there’s another side to this — long-term memory acts on working memory. That is, indeed, the best way of ‘improving’ your working memory — by organizing and strengthening your long-term memory codes in such a way that large networks of relevant material are readily accessible.

Oddly enough, one of the best ways of watching the effect of long-term memory on working memory is through perception.

Perception is where cognition begins. It’s where memory begins. But here’s the thing: it is only in the very beginning, as a newborn baby, that this perception is pure, uncontaminated by experience.

‘Uncontaminated’ makes it sound bad, but of course the shaping of perception by experience is vital. Otherwise we’d all be looking around wide-eyed, wondering what was going on. So we need to shape our perception.

For example, if we’re searching for a particular object, we have a mental picture of what we’re looking for, and that helps us find it quicker. Such predictive templates have recently been shown to exist for smell as well.

‘Predictive templates’ are the perceptual version of cognitive schemas. I have mentioned schemas before, in the context of expertise and reading scientific text. But schemas aren’t restricted to such intellectual pursuits; we use schemas constantly, every day of our lives. Schemas, or mental models or scripts, are mental representations you’ve formed through your experiences, that tell you what to expect from a given situation. This means we don’t have to think too hard when we come up against a familiar situation; we know what to expect.

That also means that we often don’t notice things that don’t fit in with our expectations.

I could talk about that for some time, but what I want to emphasize today is this point that thought begins with perception — and perception begins with the body.

For example, it probably won’t surprise anyone that an educational program for young children, “Moved by Reading”, has been found to help young elementary school children understand texts and math word problems by getting them to manipulate images on a computer screen in accordance with the story. Such virtual ‘acting out’ helped the children understand what was going on in the story and, in the case of the math problems, significantly reduced their attention to irrelevant information in the text. (You can read the journal article (pdf) on this; those who are registered at Edweek can also read the article that brought this to my notice.)

More surprisingly, at the Dance Psychology Lab at the University of Hertfordshire, they’ve apparently discovered that different sorts of dancing help people with different sorts of problem-solving. Improvised dance apparently helps with divergent thinking, where there are multiple answers to a problem. Very structured kinds of dance help with convergent thinking, where you’re looking for the single answer to a problem. The researchers also claim that improvised dance can help those with Parkinson's disease improve their divergent thinking skills. (I’m using the words ‘apparently’ and ‘claim’ because I haven’t seen any research papers on this — but I wanted to mention it because it’s a nice idea, and you can read an article about it and listen to the head of the Dance Lab talk about it in a 20-minute video).

We can readily see how acting out text can reveal details that in reading we might gloss over, and it’s only one step from this to accept that gesturing might help us solve problems and remember them (as I’ve reported repeatedly). But the idea that dancing in different ways might affect how we think? Not so easily believed. But in a recent news report, I talked about two experimental studies that demonstrated how moving your hands makes you less inclined to think of abstract solutions to problems (or, conversely, that moving your hands helps you solve problems physically), and holding your hands close to the object of your perception helps you see details, but hinders you from abstracting commonalities.

This idea that the way you hold or move your body can affect what we might term your level of perception — specific detail vs global — is perhaps echoed (am I drawing too long a bow here?) in a recent observation I made regarding face-blindness (prosopagnosia). That it may be, along with perfect pitch and eidetic memory, an example of what happens when your brain can’t abstract the core concept.

Our own personal experience, supported in a recent study of scene perception, indicates that we can’t do both. At any one time you must make the choice: to focus on details, or to focus on the big picture. So this is contextual, but it’s also individual — some people will be more inclined to a detail strategy, others to a global strategy. Interestingly, this may change with age. And also experience.

One aspect of cognitive flexibility is being able to control your use of detail and global perception. This applies across the board, in many different circumstances. You need to think about which type of perception is best in the context.

In the realm of notetaking, for example, (as I discuss in my book Effective notetaking), your goal makes a huge difference to the effectiveness of your notetaking. The more specific the goal, the fewer notes you need take, and the more targeted they are. Generally speaking, also, the more specific your goal, the faster you can read/select.

But of course there’s a downside to being fast and targeted (there’s always a downside to any strategy!) — you are likely to miss information that isn’t what you’re after, but is something you need to know in a different or wider context.

There’s something else interesting about speed of processing: we associate faster processing speeds with higher intelligence, and we associate concentration with faster processing speeds. That is, when we’re concentrating, we can read/work faster. Contrariwise, I believe (though I don’t think there’s any research on this — do tell me if you know of any), if we can force ourselves into a faster mode of operation, our concentration will be better.

So fast is good, but risks missing relevant information — implying that sometimes slow is better. Which leads me to a thought: is another way of looking at Csikszentmihalyi’s famous “flow” the idea that flow is achieved when you get the speed just right? And can you therefore help yourself achieve that flow state through physical means? (Inevitably leading me to think of t’ai ch’i.)

Some thoughts for the day!

Everyday memory strategies

Common everyday memory strategies

The most frequently used everyday memory strategies are:

  • writing calendar or diary notes
  • putting things in a special place
  • writing reminder notes
  • writing shopping lists
  • using face-name associations
  • mentally rehearsing information
  • using a timer
  • asking someone else to help

Of these, all but two are external memory aids. With the exception of face-name associations, mnemonic strategies (the foundation of most memory-improvement courses) are little used.

How effective are these strategies?

In general, external aids are regarded as easier to use, more accurate, and more dependable. In particular, external aids are preferred for reminding oneself to do things (planning memory). Mental strategies however, are equally preferred as retrieval cues for stored information. The preferred strategies are mentally retracing (for retrieving stored information) and mentally rehearsing (for storing information for later retrieval).

Note that these preferred strategies are not those that are most effective, but those strategies that are least effortful. The popularity of asking someone to help you remember has surprised researchers, but in this context it is readily understandable — asking someone is easiest strategy of all! It is not, however, particularly effective.

Older people in particular, are less inclined to use a strategy merely because it is effective. For them it is far more important that a strategy be familiar and easy to use.

Learning effective strategies does require effort, but once you have mastered them, the effort involved in using them is not great. The reason most people fail to use effective strategies is that they haven’t mastered them properly. A properly mastered skill is executed automatically, with little effort. (see Skill learning)

The Memory Key

External memory aids

What are external memory aids?

External memory aids include such strategies as:

  • taking notes
  • making shopping lists
  • entering appointments in a diary or on a calendar
  • writing a memo to yourself
  • writing on the back of your hand
  • taking photographs
  • using clocks, oven timers, alarms on watches, etc
  • putting objects in a conspicuous place
  • putting a knot in your handkerchief
  • asking someone to help you remember

Making lists

Making lists or writing reminder notes to yourself, is one of the most widespread external memory aids. It seems that list-making is primarily helpful as a way of organizing (encoding) information, rather than its more obvious role in retrieving. More often than not, people do not actually use the list or note to ‘remember’. The act of making it is sufficient to aid later recall.

However, there are situations where list-making appears appropriate but is not in fact the best strategy. For example, one study found that waitresses who went from table to table to take drink orders were much better at remembering the orders if they visualized the drinks in particular locations rather than when they wrote the orders down1. It is perhaps the time pressure in that kind of situation that makes an internal strategy more effective than an external one.

When to use mental strategies

  • when you can’t rely on external prompts (e.g., acting in a play)
  • when external prompts are difficult to prepare (e.g., because you lack writing materials) or hard to use (you have OOS in your writing hand)
  • when you didn’t expect to need to recall something, and have nothing prepared
  • when using external aids interferes with other behavior (understanding what’s going on; taking orders; etc)
  • when carrying external aids would be undesirable or inconvenient (e.g., when driving)
  • when the interval between learning and recall is very short (as when you need to remember a phone number only long enough to dial it)

When to use external memory aids

  • when a number of interfering activities occur between encoding and recall (e.g., having to remember to buy groceries after work)
  • when there is a long time between encoding and recall (e.g., needing to make a doctor’s appointment two months in the future)
  • when internal aids are not trusted to be sufficiently reliable (as when precise details need to be remembered; or strict timing — when to check a cake in the oven)
  • when information is difficult, and doesn’t cohere easily (e.g., remembering lectures)
  • when there is insufficient time to properly encode information
  • when memory load is to be avoided (as when you are attending to more than one activity)

How effective are external memory aids?

In general, external aids are regarded as easier to use, more accurate, and more dependable, than mental strategies. However, with the exception of note-taking, there has been little research into the effectiveness of external memory aids. The most that can be said is that, by and large, people believe they can be effective (with the emphasis, perhaps, on ‘can’).

One problem with external aids is that most of them are highly specific in their use. Their effective use also requires good habits. It’s no good remembering to make a note in your diary if you don’t remember to look in it.

The Memory Key

  • Intons-Peterson, M.J. & Fourrier, J. 1986. External and internal memory aids: when and how often do we use them? Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 115, 267-280.
  • Intons-Peterson, M.J. & Newsome, G.L. III. 1992. External memory aids: effects and effectiveness. In D. Herrmann, H. Weingartner, A. Searleman & C. McEvoy (eds.) Memory Improvement: Implications for Memory Theory. New York: Springer-Verlag.
  1. Bennett, H.L. 1983. Remembering drinks orders: The memory skills of cocktail waitresses. Human Learning, 2, 157-169.