Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Remembering together - How long-term couples develop interconnected memory systems

Although it might seem a good idea to work with other people to remember important information, the evidence suggests that this typically isn't so. Individual recall is most efficient whereas social remembering comes with drawbacks, tripping up our flow and inhibiting memories. But this evidence mostly comes from asking people to collaborate with a stranger. What happens when you know each other really, really well?

Celia Harris and colleagues at Macquarie University recently reviewed their previously published and new research on social remembering by long-term intimate couples. Their data showed that on standard tasks, such as reproducing words from studied lists, couples working together often did as well as when they worked alone. This lack of a penalty from social remembering is itself notable, but it's just a gateway into more intriguing findings.

During another study, the researchers noticed that although couples did more poorly at listing their shared holidays when recalling together, these social sessions were filled with anecdotes and tangents that weren't generated in the solo sessions. This inspired them to depart from testing memory for lists of words and events, and to explore the amount of rich, in-depth information remembered by couples about experienced events. They found these social exchanges led to clear collaborative memory benefits, which could take three forms:

  1. “New information” such as finally snatching an elusive name of a musical thanks to a chain of prompts between the two parties.
  2. Richer, more vivid descriptions of events including sensory information.
  3. Information from one partner painting things in a new light for the other.

Differences between the couples were crucial. Those who structured their approach together and were more prepared to riff off the other's contributions did better than those who were more passive or critical. Richer events were also better remembered by partners who rated their intimacy as higher.

The authors note that older adults tend to experience the greatest memory difficulties with first-hand autobiographical information, rather than abstracted facts. This is exactly where the couples gained the biggest benefit from remembering together, as evidenced by performance on the in-depth event recall task and the spontaneously emerging anecdotes. It's possible that as we grow older, we offset the unreliability of our own episodic systems by drawing on the memorial support offered by a trusted partner. This might explain why when one member of an older couple experiences a drop in cognitive function, the other soon follows. Our memory systems are more of a shared resource than we realise.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Harris, C., Barnier, A., Sutton, J., & Keil, P. (2014). Couples as socially distributed cognitive systems: Remembering in everyday social and material contexts Memory Studies, 7 (3), 285-297 DOI: 10.1177/1750698014530619

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.


Research Digest said...

If older adults "tend to experience the greatest memory difficulties with first-hand autobiographical information" perhaps one reason is that they're not often given a chance to rehearse it--except in a long-term relationship. Most people do not ask an older person to "tell me your story"...they rather flee from having to hear elders reminisce about events that mean nothing to them. Unrehearsed memories often fade unless sufficiently traumatic to cause internal rehearsal. (I will never forget the name of my third grade teacher, a vicious manipulator, but my first-grade teacher was not particularly memorable and has faded to Miss...um...um...something with an S?) At some point in early middle age I quit rehearsing the list of all my teachers because no one but me gave a damn--my friends remembered only a few.

In other areas, old quarrels and triumphs can seem much less important as years pass...trivial, and not a pursuit worth the effort. In other situations, the emotional context of a memory may be more important than the date and location. With increasing age, there's a lot more to remember, a lot more incidents and people and places and situations...and older adults have their own unique filters for keepsake memories, letting go ones someone else might choose to keep...as with household clutter. (And speaking of that, if a fire, flood, or move results in the loss of memory-prompts--photos, memorabilia--those memories can also fade, as the habit of depending on the prompts may have prevented independent memory rehearsal.) Some are packrats; some are minimalists. And yes, some are custodians of memory for a partner whose memory is either failing or filtered differently.

Research Digest said...

Does this also account for couples finishing each other's sentences or in fact one of the couple not even having to finish a sentence and the other knows exactly what they are referring to? This happens to us and it drives the 'kids' crazy!

Research Digest said...

It certainly has a similar flavour, doesn't it?

Many years back on my undergraduate degree we studied a phenomena, the name of which I'm failing to remember, where two or more people develop over time a common vocabulary to process reality. This work suggests that we co-evolve ways of thinking with other relevant parties, e.g. developing a way to describe the different moods of your infant child that you can both use to quickly draw conclusions about.

For me, what you're describing has more of a flavour of what I've just described - developing a common vocabulary or types of thinking - whereas this paper describes the sharing of more complex representations, episodic memories being the richest representations we can (re)create (with the possible exception of very vivid imaginings - see a forthcoming Digest article which touches on this topic).

Research Digest said...

A range of interesting points EMoonTX. Thank you!

To touch on the physical memory prompts, I can share what the study mentions that didn't make it into my writeup due to space. The participants did describe day to day reliance on calendars, diaries etc, in fact moreso than upon each other (although we may question whether the use of a calendar may be more visible and hence more noticeable than gentle nudges by a partner). There was evidence in this older adult group that men relied on partners more than women did, whereas women may rely more on physical prompts. As such, we can speculate that in older male + female couples, there may be a tendency for the woman to shoulder the responsibility of managing the diary etc and for the man to increasingly rely on her.

Rehearsal is hugely important to memory maintenance, and the thought that older people now have fewer opportunities to do so is a fascinating one. Of course, it is possible to recollect alone, but does that have the same effect as retelling to another? Almost certainly not, as there is a greater investment required to adequately retell an event to someone unfamiliar, ensuring that the remember has to struggle to explicate the fading details - and may benefit from prompts and questions, having some of the effect that long-term partners do in triggering new connections.

Research Digest said...

It would be interesting to measure how the actual accuracy of the remembered data varied depending on the intimacy parameters as well. I mean, not only does rehersal help memory maintainence, but I also suspect it might also alter the memory, like a story that gets better every time it's retold, despite coming from the same storyteller. I imagine that there could be similar effects also when "riffing" off the partners interpretation etc.

Research Digest said...

An interesting possibility: what if some enterprising therapist created a "couple profile" for an aging pair that somehow surveyed this dual memory for shared content, gathering key points so that when one of the spouses passed away, there would be some kind of vestigal reservoiir to help the surviving spouse carry on?

Interactions after the loss could then focus on building up/retaining that shared memory and perhaps family/friends could share that effort in ways paid staff would never have time for. And how 'bout creating an app for practicing that so that all the weight of this would not necessarily fall on family/friends if they've grown weary of the process and are more than happy to let those stories fall by the wayside?

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