as early as our twenties. But the picture isn't entirely bleak. A new study published in Psychology and Aging explores the possibility that an older person's curiosity or interest in a subject can reinforce their powers of memory. Following this view, old age is associated with forgetting more of what you don't care about, but the ability to remember what matters to you is preserved or even enhanced.
Shannon McGillivray and her colleagues tested 24 older adults (13 women; average age 73) and 24 younger adults (16 women; average age 20) on 60 obscure trivia questions, such as "What was the first nation to give women the right to vote?*" Any that they answered correctly were removed from further analysis (this was an average of 6.5 for the older group and an average of 3.5 for the younger group). For the remainder of the questions, the participants were first asked to say how curious they were in discovering the answer, then on being told the answer they were asked to say how interested they were in this piece of information.
An hour later (the time was spent performing other mental tasks), the participants were given a surprise test, and asked to remember the answers to half of the earlier trivia questions. A week later they were given another surprise test and asked to remember the answers to the other half of the questions.
The first thing to report is that on both the tests, the older group actually performed as well as the younger group. The youngsters achieved 86.6 per cent accuracy after an hour and 51.8 per cent after a week, compared with the older folk managing 89.1 per cent and 50.1 per cent, respectively. The older group showed more initial curiosity toward the questions, and greater interest or inquisitiveness in the answers – might this explain their ability to match the memory performance of the younger participants?
Yes and no. While initial curiosity in a question was not related to later memory performance for the answer to that question, participants young and old did better at remembering answers that they said they found more interesting. And what's more, whereas this reinforcing effect of interest weakened over time for the younger group (that is, it appeared to provide them with more of a memory boost after one hour than after one week), the converse was true for the older group. That is, for the older group, interest in an answer was more strongly correlated with their ability to remember that answer a week later, than it was after one hour.
"It may be that it is a rewarding experience to reflect on and recall interesting or important knowledge-based information one was initially curious about, and this may be especially so for older adults," the researchers said.
This effect needs to be investigated further with different forms of material, longer time spans, and with a much larger sample, but there's definitely a positive take-away here. As McGillivray and her colleagues put it: "... the results of the current study are encouraging for any aging individual in that they demonstrate that the ability to remember what we care about does not fade, and in fact, may become stronger." Hearing positive messages like this is all the more important given other research that we've reported on previously showing that older people frequently underestimate their own memory skills.
McGillivray, S., Murayama, K., & Castel, A. (2015). Thirst for Knowledge: The Effects of Curiosity and Interest on Memory in Younger and Older Adults. Psychology and Aging DOI: 10.1037/a0039801
*Answer: New Zealand.
Different mental abilities peak at different times of life, from 18 to 70+
Older people frequently underestimate their own memory skills
Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.
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