The brutal truth, says Ayanna Thomas, is that we’re all losing it. “You start seeing cognitive decline in your 20s,” says the assistant professor of psychology.
There is a pause as the implications sink in.
“Yeah,” she says with empathy. “I know.” She glances at the students outside her office. “They don’t realize how good they have it.”
“I’m not confident in my own memory,” says Ayanna Thomas, director of the Cognitive Aging and Memory Lab. Photo: Alonso Nichols
One of the most trying symptoms of the inexorable decline is memory loss. Thomas, who established the Cognitive Aging and Memory Lab at Tufts in 2007, is exploring how memory changes with age and how older adults can optimize the memory they have.
One of her goals is to help people answer nerve-racking questions like: Is it normal to forget why you walked into a room—or is it Alzheimer’s?
“There are tests you can take that do a good job of differentiating,” she says, pointing to research centers that do such assessments. “But you know the average older adult is not going to an Alzheimer’s disease research center and not going through a two-and-a-half-hour battery [of tests]. Those who do go are probably pretty far advanced already.”
To devise simpler tests, and perhaps develop cognitive exercises to slow the progress of disease, Thomas is looking at how memory loss at the very early stages of Alzheimer’s differs from the changes of normal aging.
Memories are made through a variety of brain processes, and people do indeed tend to lose some of these functions as they age, Thomas says. But they retain others. For example, remembering that an item exists is a separate process from remembering its location.
“Think about studying a map of Tufts,” she explains. “I can remember that Ballou Hall exists; I can remember where Ballou Hall is, or both.” In a study she conducted with Tufts psychologist Holly Taylor and graduate student Bailey Bonura, G13, older adults were less likely than younger test participants to remember item and location in combination, and less likely to remember items alone. The good news? Location was something remembered equally well by old and young.
The key is to get older adults—and other people with cognitive deficits—to rely on their best-working functions. “Then they can perform more efficiently and effectively,” Thomas says.
For example, if you want to remember the name of a person you just met, don’t simply rehearse it over and over. Make meaningful associations and use the name in conversation. This makes forming new memories, or encoding, more effortful, but also more successful.
Thomas goes on to note that most people are very lazy about their cognition, and that exercise—mental exercise—is exactly what they need if they are to improve their memories. The more detailed a memory is—the more it can be fleshed out with the where, the when, and the surrounding particulars—the more accurate it tends to be.
“If we take the time and think back, we can extract those details and make a more accurate assessment,” says Thomas. “How were you feeling at the time? What were you thinking at the time? When people are responding to survey questions—how often do you do an activity, for example—they respond rapidly. If you force them to spend, at the minimum, 15 seconds, it improves accuracy. So spend a little more time; evaluate your answers.”
In a study she is conducting in collaboration with Ira Wilson, a professor at the School of Medicine, Thomas will be looking at how patients who are on several medications might use the recall of “contextual details” to remember to take their pills.
Reaching for the details of a memory can also help prevent distortion from creeping in. In one recent study, published in Psychological Science, Thomas asked people to watch an episode of the fast-paced television drama 24. They were then given a test to see how well they remembered certain details. After the test, some people were given a written summary of the episode they had seen, but weren’t told that some of the facts had been changed. When those people were tested again, many were apt to recount the false information as their own memories. And they were pretty confident they were getting it right.
“It’s so easy to distort memory,” Thomas says. “Distortion is going to seep in, but you might not necessarily be aware of it.” While accurate memories can be trivial when it comes to TV chitchat around the water cooler, they’re important, for example, when it comes to eyewitness testimony in a court case.
On the bright side, the study found that reminding people not to believe everything they read can help with accuracy. “When you warn people after they’ve processed the narrative, but before they take the final test, that some of the information is incorrect—‘please don’t think about it, try to remember the original information’—they demonstrate significantly better performance,” Thomas says.
We can combat false memories by trying a little harder and looking for those contextual details. Was it Jack Bauer torturing the prisoner in that episode of 24? It’s a logical bet, but if you can call up the memory of the electrodes and Jack’s conflicted look, your memory will be all the better.
Another aspect of Thomas’ research is metamemory, which is our perception of how well we remember. It’s what tells a student that he has studied enough for the test, or that you’ve gotten everything on your mental grocery list.
But the ability to assess our memory also changes as we age, usually for the worse. “Older adults are extraordinarily under-confident, as you can imagine,” she says. “They’ll come into the lab, and they’ll say, ‘Dr. Thomas, I really have a bad memory’ or ‘This task is so hard,’ and so forth. And after the test is over I say, ‘Look at all this information that you did remember. Why do you think your memory is so poor?’ You can sort of start building confidence in them this way.”
So go ahead, play to your strengths. One strategy is to make notes to yourself and put them in appropriate places. If you don’t remember well when you’re tired or stressed, be aware of that. Simply thinking more about your memory can help overcome deficits.
“I’m not confident in my own memory,” Thomas adds, “but I take a lot of notes.”
Besides, she says, accurately remembering what you had for breakfast is not the purpose of memory.
“Memory obviously has its function, but that function isn’t retrospective in nature,” she says. “It’s about how these episodes have influenced us so that we can predict what is to come and behave in more efficient ways.”
Having lived in New York City, for example, helped Thomas get around Tokyo on her first trip to East Asia last summer. “I was able to predict and react accordingly, and it worked out pretty well,” she says. “All this prior experience—I’m not necessarily consciously aware of it, but it is allowing me to make quicker decisions. It’s about future direction and guiding behavior.”
Memory, it seems, is not about the past. It is about preparing for the future.Julie Flaherty can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.