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The Subtleties of Memory

PGP Mediation Blog by Phyllis G. Pollack

All disputes are premised on what occurred in the past with the view of resolving them by looking forward. We are often told not to “dwell on the past” but to “look forward” in trying to figure out how to resolve the issues.

Thus, all disputes involve our memories. And… as much as we would like to think they serve us well, we find that we can’t always remember things or that it takes us longer to remember than we would like. Especially, as we get older! But, this does not mean, us baby boomers are “losing it”!

A recent study shows the subtleties of our memories. In the New York Times Science section on January 28, 2014, Benedict Carey discusses the “Older Mind May Just Be a Fuller Mind” or the notion that our minds do not decline with age; it’s just that there is more stuff (i.e., increased knowledge) in our memory banks and so it takes longer to process and retrieve the information we seek to recall. Mr. Carey’s article is based on a study conducted by Michael Ramscar and several others entitled “The Myth of Cognitive Decline: Non-Linear Dynamics of Lifelong Learning” published January 13, 2014 in Topics in Cognitive Science, Vol 6, issue 1, pages 5-42 (January 2014).

In the study, Mr. Ramscar gives examples of older folks having more information to sift through as the reason it takes them longer to remember. One example is remembering names; as any baby boomer can tell you, it is harder to remember names as you grow older. Indeed, the study showed that on average, it will take someone in their 70’s about a half a second longer to remember a name than when she was 20 years old. (Id. at 27.) Why? Because the possibilities of someone’s name have grown exponentially over the years. In the 1880’s, there were about 100 possibilities of a female name whereas today, that possibility is well over 2,000! As the author notes “… in the 300 years prior to 1750, 50% of men and 50% of women in England were consistently given one of just three highly frequent male or female names….” (Id at 24.)

Another example is more poignant: Suppose someone asks what does “PFC” stand for? A baby boomer with so many years of experience may come up with three alternatives: pre-frontal cortex in neuroscience; post-focus compression in linguistics; or private, first class in the military, or a myriad of other examples depending upon her profession and experience. (Id. at 18) By contrast, a 20 year old may not have any notion of what “PFC” means and so will answer the question very quickly ( “I dunno know!”). The baby boomer, having to sift through memory banks of perhaps 50 years of experience will take a few seconds longer to answer since she knows of at least three possibilities. (Id.)

Finally, the study notes that “…as people age, they encode less contextual information in memory” (Id. at 34) The reason is that the variety of their environments shrink and so reduces the variety of the situations in which they learn new things. For example, one living in an assisted living facility will encounter much less variety than one living at home and going out every day. As a consequence, the former will find it more difficult to retrieve the older memories than the latter. (Id. at 34.) I guess it is akin to the “squeaky wheel gets the grease” notion; with disuse, it is harder to remember a particular piece of information that was used repeatedly years ago.

The conclusion is that when listening to an older person tell her story of what happened, be patient; it is not that she is “losing it”; she simply has more stuff in her memory banks to sift through to come up with the right word or answer. (Yet, another example of where an “assumption” can lead you astray!)

… Just something to think about!


Phyllis Pollack

Phyllis Pollack with PGP Mediation uses a facilitative, interest-based approach. Her preferred mediation style is facilitative in the belief that the best and most durable resolutions are those achieved by the parties themselves. The parties generally know the business issues and priorities, personalities and obstacles to a successful resolution as… MORE >

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