Do older adults forget as much as they think, or is it rather that they ‘misremember’?
A small study adds to evidence that gist memory plays an important role in false memories at any age, but older adults are more susceptible to misremembering because of their greater use of gist memory.
Gist memory is about remembering the broad story, not the details. We use schemas a lot. Schemas are concepts we build over time for events and experiences, in order to relieve the cognitive load. They allow us to respond and process faster. We build schemas for such things as going to the dentist, going to a restaurant, attending a lecture, and so on. Schemas are very useful, reminding us what to expect and what to do in situations we have experienced before. But they are also responsible for errors of perception and memory — we see and remember what we expect to see.
As we get older, we do of course build up more and firmer schemas, making it harder to really see with fresh eyes. Which means it’s harder for us to notice the details, and easier for us to misremember what we saw.
A small study involving 20 older adults (mean age 75) had participants look at 26 different pictures of common scenes (such as a farmyard, a bathroom) for about 10 seconds, and asked them to remember as much as they could about the scenes. Later, they were shown 300 pictures of objects that were either in the scene, related to the scene (but not actually in the scene), or not commonly associated to the scene, and were required to say whether or not the objects were in the picture. Brain activity was monitored during these tests. Performance was also compared with that produced in a previous identical study, involving 22 young adults (mean age 23).
As expected and as is typical, there was a higher hit rate for schematic items and a higher rate of false memories for schematically related lures (items that belong to the schema but didn’t appear in the picture). True memories activated the typical retrieval network (medial prefrontal cortex, hippocampus/parahippocampal gyrus, inferior parietal lobe, right middle temporal gyrus, and left fusiform gyrus).
Activity in some of these regions (frontal-parietal regions, left hippocampus, right MTG, and left fusiform) distinguished hits from false alarms, supporting the idea that it’s more demanding to retrieve true memories than illusory ones. This contrasts with younger adults who in this and previous research have displayed the opposite pattern. The finding is consistent, however, with the theory that older adults tend to engage frontal resources at an earlier level of difficulty.
Older adults also displayed greater activation in the medial prefrontal cortex for both schematic and non-schematic hits than young adults did.
While true memories activated the typical retrieval network, and there were different patterns of activity for schematic vs non-schematic hits, there was no distinctive pattern of activity for retrieving false memories. However, there was increased activity in the middle frontal gyrus, middle temporal gyrus, and hippocampus/parahippocampal gyrus as a function of the rate of false memories.
Imaging also revealed that, like younger adults, older adults also engage the ventromedial prefrontal cortex when retrieving schematic information, and that they do so to a greater extent. Activation patterns also support the role of the mediotemporal lobe (MTL), and the posterior hippocampus/parahippocampal gyrus in particular, in determining true memories from false. Note that schematic information is not part of this region’s concern, and there was no consistent difference in activation in this region for schematic vs non-schematic hits. But older adults showed this shift within the hippocampus, with much of the activity moving to a more posterior region.
Sensory details are also important for distinguishing between true and false memories, but, apart from activity in the left fusiform gyrus, older adults — unlike younger adults — did not show any differential activation in the occipital cortex. This finding is consistent with previous research, and supports the conclusion that older adults don’t experience the recapitulation of sensory details in the same way that younger adults do. This, of course, adds to the difficulty they have in distinguishing true and false memories.
Older adults also showed differential activation of the right MTG, involved in gist processing, for true memories. Again, this is not found in younger adults, and supports the idea that older adults depend more on schematic gist information to assess whether a memory is true.
However, in older adults, increased activation of both the MTL and the MTG is seen as rates of false alarms increase, indicating that both gist and episodic memory contribute to their false memories. This is also in line with previous research, suggesting that memories of specific events and details can (incorrectly) provide support for false memories that are consistent with such events.
Older adults, unlike young adults, failed to show differential activity in the retrieval network for targets and lures (items that fit in with the schema, but were not in fact present in the image).
What does all this mean? Here’s what’s important:
- older adults tend to use schema information more when trying to remember
- older adults find it harder to recall specific sensory details that would help confirm a memory’s veracity
- at all ages, gist processing appears to play a strong role in false memories
- memory of specific (true) details can be used to endorse related (but false) details.
What can you do about any of this? One approach would be to make an effort to recall specific sensory details of an event rather than relying on the easier generic event that comes to mind first. So, for example, if you’re asked to go to the store to pick up orange juice, tomatoes and muesli, you might end up with more familiar items — a sort of default position, as it were, because you can’t quite remember what you were asked. If you make an effort to remember the occasion of being told — where you were, how the other person looked, what time of day it was, other things you talked about, etc — you might be able to bring the actual items to mind. A lot of the time, we simply don’t make the effort, because we don’t think we can remember.
 . Differentiating True and False Schematic Memories in Older Adults. The Journals of Gerontology: Series B [Internet]. Submitted . Available from: https://academic.oup.com/psychsocgerontology/advance-article/doi/10.1093/geronb/gby011/4840027