One important reason for the greater cognitive problems commonly experienced as we age, is our increasing difficulty in ignoring distracting and irrelevant information. But it may be that in some circumstances that propensity can be used to help memory.
The study involved 25 younger (17-23) and 32 older adults (60-86), who were shown the faces and names of 24 different people and told to learn them. The names were written in bright blue text and placed on the forehead, and each photo was shown for 3 seconds. After the learning session, participants were immediately tested on their recall of the name for each face. The test was self-paced. Following a 10 minute interval, during which they were given psychological tests, they were shown more photos of faces, but this time were told to ignore the text — their task was to push a button when they saw the same face appear twice in a row. The text was varied: sometimes names, sometimes words, and sometimes nonwords. Ten of the same faces and names from the first task were repeated in the series of 108 trials; all items were repeated three times (thus, 30 repeated face-name pairs; 30 other face-name pairs; 24 face-word pairs; 24 face-nonword pairs). The photos were each displayed for 1.5 seconds. A delayed memory test was given after another 10 minutes of psychological testing. A cued-recall test was followed by a forced-choice recognition test.
Unsurprisingly, overall younger adults remembered more names than older adults, and both groups remembered more on the second series, with younger adults improving more. But younger adults showed no benefit for the repeated face-name pairs, while — on the delayed recall task only — older adults did.
Interestingly, there was no sign, in either group, of repeated names being falsely recalled or recognized. Nor did they significantly affect familiarity.
It seems that this sort of inadvertent repetition doesn’t improve memory for items (faces, names), but, specifically, the face-name associations. The study builds on previous research indicating that older adults hyperbind distracting names and attended faces, which produces better learning of these face-name pairs.
It’s suggested that repetition as distraction might act as a sort of covert retrieval practice that relies on a nonconscious process specifically related to the priming of relational associations. Perhaps older adults’ vulnerability to distraction is not simply a sign of degeneration, but reflects a change of strategy to one that increases receptiveness to environmental regularities that have predictive value. Younger adults have narrowed attention that, while it allows them greater focus on the task, also stops them noticing information that is immediately irrelevant but helpful further down the track.
The researchers are working on a training program to help older adults with MCI use this benefit to better remember faces and names.