Associated Memories

A new study has revealed that when we recall a piece of information, we also get better at recalling related info.

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Psychologists have known for decades that the act of recalling a specific fact – say, that the Spanish word for “turnip” is “nabo” (it is) – improves the speed and ease of subsequent attempts to recall the same fact. This is known as “target memory.”

But Katherine A. Rawson, a Kent State psychologist, has been working with a graduate student named Kalif Vaughn to unravel just how far these memory improvements reach. The results are intriguing:

“With retrieval practice, everything gets substantially better,” Vaughn says.

That “everything” includes target memory; “cue memory,” for the stimulus [i.e., a test question] that evinces the target; and “associative memory,” of the relationship between [other facts related to the memory].

This means that (to use the turnip example above) if you’ve studied your Spanish vegetable vocabulary words enough to pick up some related facts, recalling the Spanish word for “turnip” will also improve your recollection of a) the English word “turnip” when you hear the word “nabo,” and b) what exactly the relationship between the words “turnip” and “nabo” is.

To examine this principle, Rawson and Vaughn ran a series of experiments in which they taught participants to remember English-Lithuanian word pairs using a language-training system similar to BYKI. A few days later, they tested the participants’ recall:

First, they performed one of four recall tests, plus trials including recognizing words they had or had not studied and picking out correct word pairings among incorrect ones. The experiments yielded the same results: Items which had been correctly retrieved more times during practice exhibited better performance on tests of all three kinds of memory: cue, target, and associative.

This confirms the usefulness of a study tactic plenty of us have used: self-quizzing. The more times you test your recall of a piece of information, the more likely you are to remember it later. But quizzing alone won’t necessarily yield results:

Vaughn stresses that it isn’t just testing, but successful testing — getting the answer right — that makes the difference in memory performance later on.

The distinct similarities between training the brain and training, say, a muscle, continue to fascinate me. The reward/learning circuits in our connectomes can be hacked for such a wide range of purposes, many of which would’ve been nearly unimaginable to our distant ancestors.

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3 Responses to “Associated Memories”

  1. […] we call “memory” isn’t just one process – or even one typeof process. In fact, neuropsychologists classify memories using a system […]

  2. […] There’s a saying in neuroscience: “Cells that fire together wire together.” (And vice versa.) In other words, synaptic plasticity – the ability of neurons to modify their connectivity patterns – is what allows neural networks to physically change as they take in new information.  It’s what gives our brains the ability to learn. […]

  3. […] recalled (a process that rewrites the memory anew each time). So it makes sense that the more we associate a particular memory with other memories – and with strong emotions – the more easily even a […]

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