For decades, linguists have debated the extent to which language influences the way we think. While the more extreme theories that language determines what we can and can’t think about have fallen out of favour, there is still considerable evidence that the languages we speak shape the way we see the world in more subtle ways.
For instance, people are better at perceiving the difference between light and dark blue if they have dedicated words for those colours (like in Russian) than if they don’t (like in English). But it turns out it’s not just the words that we use: the way in which a language is structured – its syntax – is also important. In a recent study in Scientific Reports, Federica Amici and colleagues show that the word order of a language predicts how good its speakers are at remembering the first or last parts of a list.
Anyone who has stood in the supermarket aisle trying to remember their shopping list might have wished for a larger brain. But when it comes to memory, bigger isn’t always better. A study published in Neuropsychologia has found that young children whose cerebral cortex is thinner in certain areas also tend to have better working memory.
In the past when scholars have reflected on the psychological impact of dementia they have frequently referred to the loss of the “self” in dramatic and devastating terms, using language such as the “unbecoming of the self” or the “disintegration” of the self. In a new review released as a preprint at PsyArXiv, an international team of psychologists led by Muireann Irish at the University of Sydney challenge this bleak picture which they attribute to the common, but mistaken, assumption “that without memory, there can be no self” (as encapsulated by the line from Hume: “Memory alone… ‘tis to be considered… as the source of personal identity”).
In their review, Irish and her colleagues, including doctoral candidate and lead author Cherie Strikwerda-Brown, present a more optimistic perspective based on their analysis of the research literature on autobiographical memory loss in people with Alzheimer’s Disease, people with Semantic Dementia, and others with Frontotemporal Dementia. “Overall,” they write, “… the self is not entirely lost in dementia, with distinct elements of preservation emerging contingent on life epoch and dementia syndrome”.
A picture is worth a thousand words…. When it comes to conveying a concept, this sentiment cancertainly be true. But it may also be the case for memory. At least that’s the message from Myra Fernandes and colleagues at the University of Waterloo, Canada – writing inCurrent Directions in Psychological Science, they argue that their research programme shows that drawing has a “surprisingly powerful influence” on memory, and as a mnemonic technique, it could be particularly useful for older adults – and even people with dementia.
Listening to a story is known to be cognitively demanding, in part because the listener has to pay close attention to, and remember, plot and character detail in order to understand what’s going on. Attention and memory are both diminished in people living with dementia. Might regularly reading aloud to such people help, then, to train their attention and memory, and function as a treatment? A new study of people with various kinds of dementia, published in Psychology and Neuroscience, suggests that it could.
One eyewitness to a robbery reports that the culprit was a male in his 40s with brown hair, wearing a light-coloured T-shirt. Another describes a blond man in his early 30s wearing a denim shirt. If you’re a police officer investigating the crime, whose memory do you trust?
Identifying which of two apparently credible but conflicting eye-witness statements to trust is a big problem for law enforcement agencies (as is deciding, in the case of a witness who has no incentive to lie, which among their memories are accurate). Now a new paper, reported in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, provides initial evidence for a new, objectively verifiable method for doing this. This work has, as the researchers write, “potentially far-reaching significance, not the least in the legal context.”
Most of us are healthily deluded by memory biases that inflate our self-esteem. We remember more positive personal events than negative, for instance, and we selectively recall or even edit memories in a way that bolsters our favoured view of ourselves. A pair of psychologists at Lomonosov Moscow University propose that for people with persistent anxiety, this process goes awry. The worrier’s negative self-concept is instead reinforced by the selective recall of previous painful and awkward memories, harming their confidence and fuelling anxiety.
Imagine if it were possible to implant more positive autobiographical memories in these anxious individuals. This could boost their self-esteem, increase their confidence, thus dialling down their anxiety levels. In an intriguing new study published in Memory, Veronika Nourkova and Darya Vaslienko have provided preliminary evidence that such an approach could work, although they found that hypnosis was required to make the memory implantation convincing enough.
Avid photographers celebrate the viewfinder as a means of helping us see the world anew. But psychology research has shown that under some conditions taking a photo of something actually makes it harder to remember. One possible reason is that we give less attention to an experience when we know that it will be safely stored in a photograph. But in a new paper in the Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, Julia Soares and Benjamin Storm from the University of California show that the photo-taker’s memory will suffer whether they expect to keep the photo or not.
The learning-by-teaching effect has been demonstrated in manystudies. Students who spend time teaching what they’ve learned go on to show better understanding and knowledge retention than students who simply spend the same time re-studying. What remains unresolved, however, is exactly why teaching helps the teacher better understand and retain what they’ve learned.
For a new study in Applied Cognitive Psychology researchers led by Aloysius Wei Lun Koh set out to test their theory that teaching improves the teacher’s learning because it compels the teacher to retrieve what they’ve previously studied. In other words, they believe the learning benefit of teaching is simply another manifestation of the well-known “testing effect” – the way that bringing to mind what we’ve previously studied leads to deeper and longer-lasting acquisition of that information than more time spent passively re-studying.
The hippocampus is a structure found on both sides of the brain in the temporal lobes, near the ears. It plays an important role in memory and thinking about the past and future. This led a team of researchers, led by Cornelia McCormick at the Wellcome Centre for Human Neuroimaging, to wonder if people with damage to both hippocampi are still capable of mind-wandering – after all, when we mind wander or day-dream, a lot of the time it is about things we’ve done or plan to do. And if these patients can mind wander, will the content of their mind-wandering thoughts be different from healthy controls?
For their new paper in the Journal of Neuroscience, the researchers shadowed 6 male patients with bilateral hippocampus damage for two days during daylight hours, occasionally prompting them to report what they were thinking about, and compared their descriptions with those obtained from 12 age-matched healthy controls over the same period. The patients with hippocampus damage mind-wandered just as much as the controls, but the form and content of their mind-wandering was very different.