Back to School and Memory: The Forever Student

I have gone back to school now for thirty-one years in a row. Every year since 1st grade, through 9 years of undergraduate and graduate school, and now in my 10th year of college teaching I have looked at the world and my time in it from the fresh perspective of another school year. Not one year since kindergarten have I missed the combined nostalgia and dread children and young adults everywhere likely feel when faced with a fresh start. Consider some of your favorite back-to-school memories: new shoes and backpack, sharpened pencils and crayons, labeled notebooks, joyous reunions, and the smell (good and bad) of the school building. Yet, there are less joyful ideas racing back too: schedules, the end of care-free summer days, piles of homework, and potential problems with teachers and peers.

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Studying memory, I am curious about my perspective of TIME through the lens of the school year. Perhaps with a continual re-set of a new beginning I will have better, more distinct memories for each year. Image result for timeResearchers and regular folks alike report that as you grow older life speeds up. This seems to be further compounded when you have children. I am constantly being reminded, to the point of nausea that time is moving too quickly after having children. Look at how much they’ve grown Aunt Dot exclaims year after year at all of those family gatherings.


Do you remember looking up at your parents with almost repulsive curiosity about why your relatives seemed obsessed about  YOUR growing? I now see this sentiment centered on my own two small children. Just this summer as my 5 year-old prepares for kindergarten I have thought about how many times he has been asked if he is ready for school. If his experience of time is like most young children, and days and months seem to go on forever, chances are he is starting to think this kindergarten thing doesn’t even exist. Think of taking a two hour drive to the nearest big city. A young child may ask “are we there yet” close to fifty times, if you are lucky. Image result for children looking up at parents

As we grow, our brains encode our experiences and these memories essentially shape who we are and how we see the world. This self-awareness or autobiographical memory is just starting to take hold in my 5 year-old; most of his previous memories, due to lack of language and neurological developments will fade into nothing. From now until his early thirties though time will seem like a cavern of possibility. I hope he will have no sense of a short life during this time.

If you are in your mid-thirties to forty chances are you are waking up most days wondering how you got to middle-age. Up to this point, time has been marked by autobiographical events (first days of school, graduations, birthdays, holidays, first loves, weddings, birth of children, death of loved ones) that keep stamping our idea of life with new ink. As we have these life memories not only are we creating a sense of identity but we are laying down our ability to think about our past. When asked to remember our past, reminiscing takes shape into a peak of special memories around twenties to mid-thirties. So if you to think about memories most central to who you are/most exciting/most personal, chances are you have what is referred to in memory research as a “bump” or inflection of events recalled during this time. As we age, we tend to have more predictable patterns to our lives (more stability in relationships and jobs). Without unique memories to partition out our lives, when we think back we perceive our life as moving quickly. Marcel Proust in his novel In Search of Lost Time captures this experience with the following, `Growing old; it was a funny thing to happen to a young boy.’ Being surprised now about being in my mid-thirties I have no doubt that if I am lucky enough to grow old, that like Proust I will feel a younger self trapped among the wrinkles!

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Never mind being annoyed, if one more person tells me time flies when you have children….

I have become almost painfully aware that my children are growing up quickly. I can, however, take solace in that to their blissfully under-formed ‘autobiographical selves’ growing up seems to take forever. Being around school starts for more than thirty years I wonder…will the newness of each school year help time slow? Will I continue to make enough new and exciting memories to slow the passing of time?

Will you?

*For a great read on time and memory check out Douwe Draaisma’s

Why Life Speeds Up as You Get Older: How Memory Shapes Our Past

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Is Memory Failure EVERYDAY LIFE?

How does my memory compare to yours? We can’t help but compare our own cognitive prowess with others. In the start of my memory class this fall my students and I have discussed memory improvement by way of memory training. The idea of “training” for memory might conjure up pictures of your brain lifting weights!

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Sites to improve your memory, attention, and overall cognition are alive and well and ready to take your money. But, before you push a button and commit to a brain gym membership you might want to see how you are doing.

The Everyday Memory Questionnaire (revised) by Royle, J. & Lincoln, N.B. (2008) provides a relatively simple way for you to see what everyday tasks prove you are a memory master and to help indicate where you might need some “brain bulking-up.”

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Below are examples of things that happen to people in everyday life. Some of them may happen frequently and some may happen very rarely. For each of the 13 items, consider how often, on average, you think each one has happened to you over the past month.

Rate each item on a scale of 0 — 4 using the following key:

Once or less in the last month = 0

More than once a month but less than once a week = 1

About once a week = 2

More than once a week or less than once a day = 3

Once or more in a day = 4

**You’ll want to keep track so that you can add all of the numbers at the end!!

1. Having to check whether you have done something that you should have done.
2. Forgetting when it was that something happened; for example, whether it was yesterday or last week.
3. Forgetting that you were told something yesterday or a few days ago, and maybe having to be reminded about it.
4. Starting to read something (a book or an article in a newspaper, or a magazine) without realizing you have already read it before.
5. Finding that a word is ‘on the tip of your tongue’. You know what it is but cannot quite find it.
6. Completely forgetting to do things you said you would do, and things you planned to do.
7. Forgetting important details of what you did or what happened to you the day before.
8. When talking to someone, forgetting what you have just said. Maybe saying
‘what was I talking about?’
9. When reading a newspaper or magazine, being unable to follow the thread of a story; losing track of what it is about.
10. Forgetting to tell somebody something important, perhaps forgetting to pass on a message or remind someone of something.
11. Getting the details of what someone was told you mixed up and confused.
12. Forgetting where things are normally kept or looking for them in the wrong place.
13. Repeating to someone what you have just told them or asking someone the same question twice.

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Okay, so what do I do now, you say? Perhaps you think that went well, or maybe I’ve opened up a vortex of all that you thought was wrong with your memory. Don’t panic. Here are some numbers you can work with.

Your score will total up to be something between 0 and 52. If you answered 0, then you are likely a memory master and should consider writing this post instead of me! Chances are you are more interested in the average score. Participants tested by Royle & Lincoln had an average score of 9.75 with a standard deviation (or the amount of variation among scores) of 8.6.

What does this mean for me, you ask?

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Well, consider yourself among the land of “normal memory” if you are around the average. Scores well above the average are what YOU are really concerned about… consider about two times the average (for example, approaching or higher than 30) cause for concern.

There is help for us all! When you think about the 13 items, chances are that there is room for improvement. These items target memory retrieval (being able to get a memory when we want it) and attention (well, we all know what that is). Most of our problems begin with focusing on the task. I suggest you go back through the list and assess how much better you would be if you simply paid more attention (or had the energy to pay attention) during tasks.

If this helps…you may quickly realize that with a little more sleep, hobbies, time for relaxation, an amazing partner…that you can begin to IMPROVE. After all, memory failure IS a part of everyday life.

Reference

Royle, J. & Lincoln, N. B. (2008). The everyday memory questionnaire – revised: Development of a 13-item scale. Disability and Rehabilitation, 30 (2), 114-121.

What DOES Google Know?

I have been teaching for seven years at a mid-sized university in the Midwest. The first few years of my teaching I didn’t feel that GOOGLE was yet the master. When it happened, it was sudden, shocking even, and a game-changer.

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Students love when a lecture goes off topic. It is a chance to break free of monotony, to get the jitters out and most teachers will tell you that it can be a welcome distraction. So when a question comes up like, what is the capital of South Dakota? who was the second man on the moon? what exactly is goulash? there is a chance for laughter and idle chatter….unless there is GOOGLE.

One day about eight weeks into a fall semester course on Human Memory we got off track and started to discuss common comfort foods. I fondly described one of my favorites. “We’ve all had it” I said, a mixed up concoction of the following: meat, tomatoes/tomato sauce, noodles and whatever spare vegetables you would like.goulash

Based on my previous five years in New England in graduate school I fondly remember this combination as American Chop Suey. My students understood the homemade comfort food mashup I described but said I was calling it by the WRONG name. Suddenly, a voice from the back of the room said, I just Googled it and “we” call this Goulash. A great resonance fell over the rest of the class. From then on two things were understood. One, my students were committed to names of their foods and two, GOOGLE knows.

Is there anything GOOGLE could not add to any class. Forgot what the capitol of South Dakota is? Just Google it! Can’t decide who the second man to walk on the moon was? Oh, don’t think for even ONE minute about that. Just Google it too!

Just to be clear, Google is not inherently the problem. However, I didn’t have to think hard for examples of the many, many times I relied on Google for the answer. I could sense the subtle change the knowledge capabilities of Google was having on my own thinking. Can’t remember the name of a song but can remember some of the lyrics:

Is this the real life?
Is this just fantasy?
Caught in a landslide
No escape from reality
Open your eyes
Look up to the skies and see…..
Why bother when Google will do it for you. 

The next semester in Human Memory my students read a paper by researchers Sparrow, Liu, and Wegner in 2011. Their work, “Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips” See Abstract explains that people no longer put effort into thinking hard about answers to difficult questions. Rather, they are primed to think about computers and where they might access knowledge (e.g., the internet) on a specific webpage, file, or blog.

Does this so-called “Google Effect” influence your memory in any way? This was the question I posed to my students. There responses were not terribly surprising. Most of them suggested that relying on technology for the answers was “just what we do.” It is easy, effortless, and frees us from remembering all of the details we might face in a day. Besides, they agreed, it had been like this for the majority of the twenty year-old students’ young lives. When you don’t immediately know the answer, it is second-nature to ask the internet, they asserted.

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I reasoned with my students that the problem is when you Google something you are short-cutting the retrieval process. Memory retrieval occurs when information is activated from long-term memory (information you currently are not thinking about) into short-term memory (memory that becomes part of your conscious experience). Stepping on retrieval with an urge to Google the answer prevents you from thoughtfully considering an idea. Sure, some might argue that retrieval should be automatic; that is, fast enough that if an answer doesn’t immediately come to you then why bother? While this can be true, it is very possible to use other, related, information that you MAY KNOW QUICKLY as cues. Consider a Trivial Pursuit question asking for the name of the second person to walk on the moon. If you really want to remember that person it is best to think of relevant cues. Perhaps you can remember the first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong. Just thinking of Mr. Armstrong could lead to our “target” astronaut’s name. But, maybe you already thought of Neil and need something more. As a teacher I’ve learned that when cues are both relevant (highly related) and distinct (somewhat unusual), they can often trigger a target memory. If I told my class that this astronaut’s first name was the sound of a tiny insect best known for making honey….well then…most people would suddenly retrieve, Buzz! Yes, Buzz Aldrin was the second man on the moon.

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So should you, me, or any of my students REALLY care about the Google Effect? Based on what I have learned about memory, I say, YES! Googling “it” can lead to self-handicapping. If we short-cut the retrieval process and reach for their nearest device too often then we are no longer “practicing memory.” We all need more practice with our memories. Sure it is fun to have data at our fingertips but if we heavily rely on the internet for immediate knowledge, we are less likely to stay the course when our memories are all we can rely on. Obviously, we don’t let students take their smart phones to a test. Your competitors at Thursday-night trivia expect your team to put the phones away. It is important to take the time and effort, on occasion, to rely on our own memory and retrieval process.

You owe it to yourselves to think about how to think! Remember, improving everyday memory requires two key components: 1.) Effort and a willingness to practice 2.) Paying attention.

What do you think….do YOU RELY TOO MUCH ON GOOGLE?

P.S. If you haven’t Googled it already, the capital of South Dakota is Pierre.

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