Everyday strategies

Many simple strategies can help us in our everyday memory tasks

Unfamiliar accents can make spoken words harder to remember

This is just a preliminary study presented at a recent conference, so we can't give it too much weight, but the finding is consistent with what we know about working memory, and it is of some usefulness.

The study tested the ability of young-adult native English speakers to store spoken words in short-term memory. The English words were spoken either with a standard American accent or with a pronounced but still intelligible Korean accent. Every now and then, the listeners (all unfamiliar with a Korean accent) would be asked to recall the last three words they had heard.

While there was no difference for the last and second-last words, the third word back was remembered significantly better when it was spoken in the familiar accent (80% vs 70%).

The finding suggests that the effort listeners needed to put into understanding the foreign accent used up some of their working memory, reducing their ability to hold onto the information.

The finding is consistent with previous research showing that people with hearing difficulties or who are listening in difficult circumstances (such as over a bad phone line or in a loud room) are poorer at remembering and processing the spoken information compared to individuals who are hearing more clearly.

On a practical level, this finding suggests that, if you're receiving important information (for example, medical information) from someone speaking with an unfamiliar accent, you should make special efforts to remember and process the information. For example, by asking them to speak more slowly, by taking notes and asking for clarification, etc. Those providing such information should take on board the idea that if their listeners are likely to be unfamiliar with their accent, they need to take greater care to speak slowly and clearly, with appropriate levels of repetition and elaboration. Gestures are also helpful for reducing the load on working memory.



Van Engen, K. et al. 2015. Downstream effects of accented speech on memory. Presentation 1aSC4 at the 169th meeting of the Acoustical Society of America, held May 18-22, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.


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Strategies for Older Adults

This concerns studies into strategies specifically for older adults, but that doesn't mean other cognitive strategies can't also be useful! See also Strategies and the specific strategy pages.

See also the separate page for Mental stimulation & cognitive reserve

Older news items (pre-2010) brought over from the old website

Characteristics of age-related cognitive decline in semantic memory

A study involving 117 healthy elderly (aged 60-91) has found that, while increasing age was associated with poorer memory for names of famous people, age didn’t affect memory for biographical details about them. It also found that names served as better cues to those details than faces did. A follow-up study (to be published in Neuropsychologia) found that, in contrast, those with mild cognitive impairment and early Alzheimer’s showed not only an increased inability to remember names, but also a decline in memory for biographical details.

[1308] Langlois R, Fontaine F, Hamel C, Joubert S. [The impact of aging on the ability to recognize famous faces and provide biographical knowledge of famous people]. Canadian Journal on Aging = La Revue Canadienne Du Vieillissement [Internet]. 2009 ;28(4):337 - 345. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19925699


Rote learning may improve verbal memory in seniors

A study involving 24 older adults (aged 55—70) has found that six weeks of intensive rote learning (memorizing a newspaper article or poem of 500 words every week) resulted in measurable changes in N-acetylaspartate, creatine and choline, three metabolites in the brain that are related to memory performance and neural cell health, in the left posterior hippocampus — but only after a six-week rest period, at which time the participants also showed improvements in their verbal and episodic memory, and also only in one of the two learning groups. The group that didn’t show any change were said to have low compliance with the memorization task.

McNulty, J. et al. The Identification of Neurometabolic Sequelae Post-learning Using Proton Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy. Presented November 26 at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA).


Actors’ memory tricks help students and older adults

The ability of actors to remember large amounts of dialog verbatim is a marvel to most of us, and most of us assume they do by painful rote memorization. But two researchers have been studying the way actors learn for many years and have concluded that the secret of actors' memories is in the acting; an actor learning lines by focusing on the character’s motives and feelings — they get inside the character. To do this, they break a script down into a series of logically connected "beats" or intentions. The researchers call this process active experiencing, which uses "all physical, mental, and emotional channels to communicate the meaning of material to another person." This principle can be applied in other contexts. For example, students who imagined themselves explaining something to somebody else remembered more than those who tried to memorize the material by rote. Physical movement also helps — lines learned while doing something, such as walking across the stage, were remembered better than lines not accompanied with action. The principles have been found useful in improving memory in older adults: older adults who received a four-week course in acting showed significantly improved word-recall and problem-solving abilities compared to both a group that received a visual-arts course and a control group, and this improvement persisted four months afterward.

[2464] Noice H, Noice T. What Studies of Actors and Acting Can Tell Us About Memory and Cognitive Functioning. Current Directions in Psychological Science [Internet]. 2006 ;15(1):14 - 18. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.0963-7214.2006.00398.x


'Imagination' helps older people remember to comply with medical advice

A new study suggests a way to help older people remember to take medications and follow other medical advice. Researchers found older adults (aged 60 to 81) who spent a few minutes picturing how they would test their blood sugar were 50% more likely to actually do these tests on a regular basis than those who used other memory techniques. Participants were assigned to one of three groups. One group spent one 3-minute session visualizing exactly what they would be doing and where they would be the next day when they were scheduled to test their blood sugar levels. Another group repeatedly recited aloud the instructions for testing their blood. The last group were asked to write a list of pros and cons for testing blood sugar. All participants were asked not to use timers, alarms or other devices. Over 3 weeks, the “imagination” group remembered 76% of the time to test their blood sugar at the right times of the day compared to an average of 46% in the other two groups. They were also far less likely to go an entire day without testing than those in the other two groups.

[473] Liu LL, Park DC. Aging and medical adherence: the use of automatic processes to achieve effortful things. Psychology and Aging [Internet]. 2004 ;19(2):318 - 325. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15222825


How to benefit from memory training

Brain and memory training programs are increasingly popular, but they don't work well for everyone. In particular, they tend to be much less effective for those who need them the most — those 80 and older, and those with lower initial ability. But a new study shows the problem is not intrinsic, but depends on the strategies people use.  The study found that people in their 60s and 70s used a strategy of spending most of their time on studying the materials and very little on the test, and showed large improvements over the testing sessions. By contrast, most people in their 80s and older spent very little time studying and instead spent most of their time on the test. These people did not do well and showed very little improvement even after two weeks of training.

[882] Bissig D[1], Lustig C[2]. Who Benefits From Memory Training?. Psychological Science [Internet]. 2007 ;18:720 - 726. Available from: http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/bpl/psci/2007/00000018/00000008/art00013


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