Avid readers of novels know that they often take the perspective of the characters they read about. But just how far does this mental role-playing go? A new paper in the Journal of Memory and Language has provided a clever demonstration of how readily we simulate the thoughts of fictional characters. Borrowing a method from research into the psychology of deliberate forgetting, the researchers at Binghamton University, USA, show that when a story character needs to focus on remembering one series of words rather than another, the reader simulates this same memory process in their own minds. The character’s mental experience becomes the reader’s mental experience.
By guest blogger Dan Carney
Our autobiographical memory is fundamental to the development of our sense of self. However, according to past research, it may be compromised in autism, together with other skills that are also vital for self understanding, such as introspection and the ability to attribute mental states to others (known as mentalising).
For example, experiments involving autistic children have highlighted retrieval difficulties, “impoverished narratives”, and a greater need for prompting, while also suggesting that semantic recall (facts from the past) may be impaired in younger individuals.
Now a UK research team, led by Sally Robinson from London’s St. Thomas’ Hospital, has published the first attempt to assess the nature of – and relationships between – autobiographical memory, mentalising and introspection in autism. Reporting their findings in Autism journal, the group hope their results will shed more light on the way that autistic children and teens develop a sense of self.
The failure to reproduce established psychology findings on renewed testing, including some famous effects, has been well-publicised and has led to talk of a crisis in the field. However, psychology is a vast topic and there’s a possibility that the findings from some sub-disciplines may be more robust than others, in the sense of replicating reliably, even in unfavourable circumstances, such as when the participants have been tested on the same effect before.
A new paper currently available as a preprint at PsyArXiv has tested whether this might be the case for nine key findings from cognitive psychology, related to perception, memory and learning. Rolf Zwaan at Erasumus University Rotterdam and his colleagues found that all nine effects replicated reliably. “These results represent good news for the field of psychology,” they said.
By Emma Young
You’ve just had a fight with your partner or a confrontation with a colleague. Now your heart’s racing, and you’re struggling to think straight. What should you do?
Psychologists are not short on ideas for how to calm yourself down after a stressful experience. Seek out a friend? Yes, there’s good evidence that can help. But what if there’s no friend to hand? You could try to alter your view of what just happened from “Disaster!” to “Not really so bad”.
But it can be difficult to engage in this kind of “cognitive reappraisal” when you’re in the immediate aftermath of a stressful event – perhaps because acute stress compromises the neural circuitry that’s involved in emotion regulation.
Your brain needs help if it’s to quickly regain control. And, according to a new study published in Nature Human Behaviour, you can provide it by thinking back over good times.
Many parents will attest to their young children’s remarkable knack for remembering rhymes, often claiming that their children’s abilities exceed their own. Can this really be true? In nearly all other contexts, adult memory is known to be superior to that of children, for obvious reasons, including the immaturity of children’s brain development and their lack of sophisticated mnemonic strategies.
A small study in Developmental Science has put pre-literate four-year-olds’ memory abilities to the test, finding that they outperformed their parents, and a comparison group of young adults, in their ability to recall a previously unfamiliar short rhyme: “The Radish-nosed King”.
“We argue that children are better than adults at recalling verse because they exercise the skill more in order to participate in the transmission of their culture through songs and stories, poems and taunts,” the researchers said.
By Alex Fradera
When someone breaks the speed limit, we tend to explain it away as recklessness, machismo, or impatience. But new research led by Vanessa Bowden at the University of Western Australia, suggests that problems in memory, not temperament, may often be the culprit. According to a recent study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, traffic stops and other interruptions can disrupt our ability to keep track of recent changes to the speed limit. But the research doesn’t entirely let us off the hook: when waiting at a stop, we can reduce these interfering effects by making sure we keep our attention on the road.
The “testing effect” is well-established in psychology: this is the finding that answering questions about what you’ve learned leads to better retention than simply studying the material for longer. Testing is beneficial because the act of recall entrenches learned material in our memories, and when we can’t answer, this helps us make our future revision more targeted. Less well-known and less well-understood is the effect of “prequestions”: questions pertaining to upcoming information that you attempt to answer before you’ve started learning that information. A new study in the Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition suggests that answering prequestions may be a simple and effective way to boost your learning from videos and perhaps short lectures too.
Some fortunate people have more “working memory” than others. It’s as if they have an extra pair of hands available for mental juggling; extremely useful for doing arithmetic and similar tasks in your head. These folk with abundant working memory capacity also tend to fare well academically and in their careers. Little surprise that “brain training” games like Lumosity and Cogmed target working memory in pursuit of these knock-on benefits (though the evidence that the training brings such benefits is weak).
What is surprising is the discovery a number of years ago that mentally dextrous people with greater working memory capacity seem to be particularly susceptible to “brain freeze” or choking under pressure.
For a new study in the Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, researchers at the University of Chicago and Michigan State University attempted to find out more about why this happens. Their results suggest that actually it’s only a subgroup of high working memory people who have this problem and it’s because of their high distractibility. These high ability chokers or brain freeze victims are “typically reliant on their higher working memory resources for advanced problem solving” but their poor attentional control renders them easily distracted by anxiety, causing their usual mental deftness to break down when the pressure is on.
When a parent asks their child plenty of “who?”, “what?”, “when?”, “where?”, “why?” questions, encourages them to go into detail and includes open-ended questions, psychologists call this an elaborative style. Past research has shown that children with parents like this tend to remember more experiences from their lives (the opposite parental style is to ask fewer questions in general, and to ask questions that only need a short, basic response). More specific studies have found that parents’ elaborative chat can also help their children remember museum visits.
A new study in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology is the first to apply this line of research to young children’s memories of a recent science lesson. The findings provide tentative evidence that conversing with a child in an elaborative way could help them remember more about their lesson.
A hugely controversial topic in psychology concerns how likely it is that some or many claims of abuse made by children are actually based on false memories, possibly implanted through the suggestions of therapists or leading questions from investigators. A related issue is whether going through the terrible experience of being mistreated makes it more or less likely that a child will be prone to forming false memories based on the suggestions or leading questions of others. In a small but important new study in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology, a team led by Henry Otgaar at Maastricht University report that while a group of maltreated children were more prone to spontaneous false memories than control participants, they were in fact, to the researchers’ surprise, less prone to false memories based on suggestion. “This is a hitherto unreported finding,” they said.