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Adaptive memory

Author: Dr Simon Moss


A variety of techniques have been developed to enhance the memory of individuals. One technique that is especially effective, but not widely recognized, involves thinking about the relevance of concepts that need to be remembered to the survival of individuals (Nairne & Pandeirada, 2008a& Nairne, Pandeirada, & Thompson, 2008).

To illustrate, suppose individuals need to remember a series of nouns, such as chair, snow, and orange. They should, first, imagine they are living in a previous era, within the grasslands of a foreign land. They have been assigned the responsibility to collect enough food for their small tribe--hunting game and gathering fruits, vegetables, and nuts. Second, they should evaluate the extent to which the various nouns they need to remember are germane or relevant to this role.

Several studies have shown this technique enhances memory of these items (Kang, McDermott, & Cohen, 2008& Nairne, Thompson, & Pandeirada, 2007& Weinstein, Bugg, & Roediger, 2008). That is, our memory systems partly evolved to facilitate our survival. Thus, any reflections about survival tend to evoke specific cognitive processes that enhance memory.

Empirical evidence

Nairne, Pandeirada, Gregory, and Van Arsdall (2009) conducted a study that epitomizes the research that has been conducted to establish adaptive memory--that is, to substantiate the benefits that accrue when the relevance of items to their survival is evaluated. In this study, some participants were asked to imagine they are living in a previous era, within the grasslands of a foreign land. They have been assigned the responsibility to gather enough fruits, vegetables, and nuts to feed their small tribe. Next, a series of thirty tangible objects, such as chair, snow, and orange, was presented.--one every 5 seconds. Their task is to evaluate the extent to which each object is relevant to this role. Finally, after a distraction task, they were, unexpectedly, instructed to recall the objects that had been presented earlier.

A second set of participants were subjected to the same process, except their responsibility was to hunt large game, to trap small animals, and to fish in a nearby lake or river. The final set of participants--a control group--were also subjected to the same process, except they did not envisage themselves in a previous era. Instead, they were instructed to imagine they were participating in a scavenger hunt. Accordingly, their role was similar, but the scenario was unrelated to their survival.

When participants envisaged themselves in a previous era, striving to survive, their recall of objects improved. That is, performance was least proficient in the control condition, in which individuals imagined themselves participating in a scavenger hunt (Nairne, Pandeirada, Gregory, & Van Arsdall, 2009).

This finding has been replicated several times (see also Kang, McDermott, & Cohen, 2008& Nairne, Thompson, & Pandeirada, 2007& Weinstein, Bugg, & Roediger, 2008). For instance, in another study, Nairne, Pandeirada, Gregory, and Van Arsdall (2009) modified the control condition marginally. In the control condition, participants imagined they were competitors of a hunting competition. Again, recall was impaired in the control condition.


Some words, classified as animate, represent living beings, such as spider, baby, minister, and trout. Other words, classified as inanimate, do not represent living beings, such as drum, hat, kite, and even doll. In general, people remember animate words better than inanimate words. Presumably, throughout evolution, the memory of humans evolved to become more attuned to animate objects. Animate objects include potential predators, mates, and friends, all vital to survival& therefore, people tend to remember animate words more effectively than inanimate words.

This possibility was proposed and verified by Nairne, Van Arsdall, Pandeirada, Cogdill, and LeBreton (2013). In one study, participants needed to memorize, and later recall, a list of 24 words. The words were coded along several dimensions, such as the degree to which the items are used frequently, easy to pronounce, emotional, desirable, vivid, concrete, long, and meaningful. Even after controlling these dimensions, participants were more likely to remember animate words rather than inanimate words.

Theoretical underpinning

This concept of adaptive memory implies that some of the mechanisms that underpin memory evolved to facilitate survival and reproduction (see also Anderson & Schooler, 1991& Tooby & Cosmides, 1992). Thus, when survival or reproduction is threatened or considered, these mechanisms are more likely to be evoked--which enhances memory of some sources of information.

In other words, memory systems are attuned to the need to survive and to reproduce. Their functioning is not unrelated to the context in which individuals operate--contrary to more traditional assumptions (cf., Neat & Surprenant, 2003).


In many primitive societies, men often hunted and women often gathered food. Accordingly, in men, memory should be especially enhanced when participants imagine hunting rather than gathering. In women, memory should be especially enhanced when participants imagine gathering rather than hunting. Nevertheless, Nairne, Pandeirada, Gregory, and Van Arsdall (2009) did not uncover any sex differences.

Other protocols that enhance memory

Generation effect

Another procedure that has been shown to enhance memory derives from the generation effect. The generation effect is the discovery that individuals are more likely to remember items they had previously generated themselves (e.g., Slamecka & Graf, 1978& see also Gardiner, 1988).

To illustrate, in a typical study, some participants might be presented with pairs of stimuli that are complete, such as FATHER-MOTHER. Other participants might be presented with pairs of stimuli that are incomplete, such as FATHER-M--HE-, and then need to complete these words themselves. Typically, individuals are more likely to recall items in which they needed to complete the words themselves.

Several factors can affect the magnitude of this generation effect. Some studies indicate the generation effect is more pronounced when participants experience a positive mood. That is, if individuals experience positive rather than negative mood states, generating the stimuli is especially likely to enhance subsequent memory (Fiedler, Lachnit, Fay, & Krug, 1992).

Furthermore, the generation effect itself can amplify or obscure other phenomenon. When individuals generate the stimuli themselves, the effect of mood congruency is more pronounced. That is, individuals become especially likely to remember positive words if their mood is also positive (Fiedler, 1991& Fiedler, Nickel, Asbeck, & Pagel, 2003).

Fiedler, Nickel, Asbeck, and Pagel (2003) formulated a framework, called the dual force approach, to explain the interactions between mood and the generation effect. This model comprises two key assumptions. First, according to Fiedler, Nickel, Asbeck, and Pagel (2003), a positive mood tends to facilitate assimilation--in which individuals apply their previous knowledge and assumptions to interpret and to enrich the stimuli in their environment. A negative mood, in contrast, tends to facilitate accommodation, in which individuals maintain their attention on the details and features of the stimuli rather than apply their previous knowledge and assumptions.

Thus, generation effects-or indeed any phenomena that demands assimilation to previous knowledge or assumptions-should be more pronounced when mood is positive. Consistent with this premise, priming, stereotyping, cognitive flexibility, and creativity are all facilitated by positive mood states.

Second, congruency effects, in which the mood of individuals affects the processing of stimuli, should be observed only when individuals engage in assimilation rather than accommodation. That is, if individuals experience a negative affective state, the corresponding accommodation does not enable internal states, like mood, to bias the processing of stimuli (Fiedler, Nickel, Asbeck, & Pagel, 2003).

Hence, when individuals generate the stimuli--a process that entails assimilation--mood congruency should be more pronounced. That is, if individuals experience a positive mood, they should be more inclined to remember the positive items.

Self reference effect

Individuals are more likely to remember information if this material is, somehow, related to themselves (e.g., Bower & Gilligan, 1979& Klein & Loftus, 1988& Maki & McCaul, 1985). In a typical study, a series of traits is presented, like "honest" or "confident". Some participants are asked to decide whether or not each trait corresponds to their personality. Other participants, in contrast, are asked to decide whether or not each trait corresponds to other people. As many studies show, when people consider whether or not these words describe their own character, memory of these traits improves, called the self reference effect. The effect size approaches .5 in some contexts (for a meta-analysis, see Symons & Johnson, 1997).

The self reference effect is not limited to memory of adjectives. Memory of nouns (Bellezza, 1984& Maki & McCaul, 1985) and even prose (Reeder, McCormick, & Esselman, 1987) is enhanced by the self reference effect.

Because of the self reference effect, trivial refinements to the words that instructors utilize can appreciably enhance learning. For example, as Mayer, Fennell, Farmer, and Campbell (2004) showed, learning is enhanced when instructors relate to participants on a personal level. Specifically, when instructors utilize the term "your" instead of "the", participants learn information more effectively. To illustrate, the claim "Air moves through minute air sacs in your lungs" is more likely to enhance an understanding of the respiratory system than will the claim "Air moves through minute air sacs in the lungs". According to Mayer, Fennell, Farmer, and Campbell (2004), when the term "your" is used, participants are more likely to associate the information with personal experiences or knowledge they accumulated in the past. These associations with past experiences and knowledge enhance learning and understanding.

In most studies, participants are explicitly instructed to relate the information to themselves. However, Kesebir and Oishi (2010) showed that such effects might unfold spontaneously, without conscious or explicit prompts. To illustrate, in one study, participants were asked to remember the birth dates of their friends before specifying their own birth date. In general, participants were more likely to recall the birth dates that were closer to their own birth dates.

In a second study, participants first listed their friends, recalled their birth dates if possible, and then sought information about these birthdates, to circumvent possible biases. Nevertheless, the same pattern of findings emerged: Participants recalled birthdates that were closer to their own birthday (Kesebir & Oishi, 2010). In the final study, participants learned about the birth dates of other people. Again, participants could more readily recall birthdates that were closer to their own birthday (Kesebir & Oishi, 2010).

From the perspective of the self reference effect, sometimes individuals become aware of birth dates that are close to their own birthday. In these instances, their own birthday--and hence their self concept--becomes more salient. They will thus relate these birthdates to their own self concept. In other words, these birthdates will be associated with many facets of the self, enhancing memory.

As a practica implication, whenever you need to explain a concept to someone else, relay this information to other people on a personal level. Specifically, substitute the term "the" with "your" whenever possible. For example, replace the phrase "Pressing this button activates the software on the computer" with "Pressing this button activates your software on your computer".

Finally, to improve memory, attempt to relate principles, facts, or items you need to remember to yourself in some way. If you need to memorize a list of computer terms, identify which of the words begin with letters that appear in your name, for example.


Music performance, listening, and appreciation have all been shown to enhance memory, attention, and intelligence. Music lessons, over the course of 32 weeks, significantly improved general intelligence in six year old children--even relative to participants of a drama program (Schellenberg 2004).

Chin and Rickard (2010) showed that even music listening and appreciation can enhance verbal memory. In this study, participants completed the California Verbal Learning Test. Specifically, a list of 16 words was presented. The words were evenly distributed across four categories--animals, furniture, transportation, and vegetables--but presented in a pseudorandom order. Participants attempted to recall these words immediately, representing a test of attention span. Next, the list was presented four more times. After each time, participants attempted to recall the words, to assess learning ability. Then, another list of 16 words was presented, distributed across four categories--animals, vegetables, musical instruments, and parts of a house. The capacity to recall these items was a measure of proactive interference. Later, cued recall and long term recall were also assessed with these words.

Furthermore, music experience and appreciation was assessed. For example, level of training, hours of listening, and perceived improvization skill was assessed. In addition, participants were asked to gauge the extent to which they perceive music as important, the degree to which music evokes strong emotions, and other responses. Finally, IQ was also measured.

In general, after controlling gender, socioeconomic status, and intelligence, duration of listening to music was positively associated with immediate recall, learning ability, interference recall, and both short and long term cued recall. Furthermore, individuals who listen to music often tended to recall the words as clusters, demonstrating an awareness of the four categories. The extent to which music evoked emotions was also associated with some facets of verbal memory.

Conceivably, music practice enhances synaptic plasticity and networks in many regions of the brain, as individuals process stimuli on many levels. Indeed, in musicians, relative to other people, the anterior corpus callosum is thicker (e.g., Lee, Chen, & Schlaug, 2003). Furthermore, music practice might utilize and refine many other processes, such as recognition of abstract patterns, memory of sequences, selective attention, emotional expression, and discipline (e.g., Schellenberg 2005) . Music listening evokes neural activity in the auditory cortex as well as frontal, temporal, and parietal areas underpinning attention and working memory .

In addition to the enduring benefits of music, stimuli that are followed by music are also retained more effectively. Judde and Rickard (2010) conducted a study in which 30 words were presented. All these words could be readily and vividly imagined, as gauged by the Paivio, Yuille, and Madigam (1968). Participants then attempted to recall the words immediately. Either positive or negative music was then presented, either 0, 20, or 45 minutes later. During the intervening period, individuals completed various questionnaires. Finally, a week later, the extent to which individuals recognized the previous list of words was assessed.

Both positive and negative music presented 20 minutes after the words were initially presented significantly enhanced subsequent recognition. Individuals who reported elevated levels of behavioral activation (see Reinforcement sensitivity theory), and thus seek rewards, were especially likely to benefit from this music. These findings support the proposition that arousal, after some delay, enhances retention of words.

Wakeful rest

Another practice that has been shown to enhance memory is merely wakeful rest, in which individuals do not perform a task that demands concentration for 10 minutes. That is, after people learn information, they automatically, rather than consciously, tend to replay this information, facilitating consolidation. As MRI studies show, the neural activity that underpins this rehearsal proceeds even if people do not deliberately reflect on this material. In contrast to wakeful rest, other cognitive tasks may disrupt this automatic rehearsal process.

Dewar, Alber, Butler, Cowan, and Sala (2012) conducted a pair of studies that confirm this premise, showing that wakeful rest facilitates memory even 7 days later. In each study, participants heard a story and then immediately attempted to recall this story. Next, some participants were granted an opportunity to rest for 10 minutes. Other participants, in contrast, were asked to complete a visual task in which they needed to detect the difference between pairs of pictures. Finally, either 30 minutes or 7 days later, they were asked to recall the story& they had not been warned of this test earlier. If participants had been granted an opportunity to rest after recalling the story initially, they could more readily recall key features of the story 30 minutes or 7 days later.


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Last Update: 6/29/2016