Our ability to access and use our memory grows with age. Hence the saying, with age comes wisdom. Yet it’s also known that our memory declines with age. How can wisdom and forgetfulness occur at the same time?

This paradox is due in part to an aspect of memory that’s received little attention – memory retrieval.

A new theory proposes that seniors process and store too much irrelevant information, making it hard to access the specific memory being searched for. The memory is not lost, it’s merely hidden among all the clutter.

Let’s see how this new science can help us sharpen our memories for years to come.

Searching for a specific book among thousands of similar titles would take an age in an unorganized library. We might as well give up and imagine the book is lost even though it’s there somewhere.

This would obviously be very frustrating, but there’s an upside. While searching, other titles long forgotten make a welcome reappearance and may benefit us even more than the title we were first looking for, which may still be found eventually.

Researchers at Harvard, Columbia and Toronto universities propose this is what happens when older adults try to remember something specific. It’s a theory that gives seniors hope their memories might be a lot better than they imagine.

Seniors Do More Filtering 

Every day we need to access information, but because our brains contain so much, we need to suppress or inhibit what’s irrelevant otherwise it would get in the way of the task we’re focused on.

In a review covering 20 years of behavioral and neuroimaging studies, the researchers suggest this inhibition becomes less efficient after the age of 65, resulting in an accumulation of information that must be navigated through to find any specific memory.

Lead researcher Dr. Lynn Hasher explains, “When older adults try to remember one particular detail, they experience more difficulty because that one detail has become connected to all sorts of other details in their mind, and they need to filter through them all.

“For example, imagine you know five people named John, and you’re trying to remember one specific John’s last name. You will find this more difficult than if you only know one person named John. That is like what happens when older adults try to recall specific details.”

Distractions Can’t Be Ignored 

In some of the studies reviewed, researchers showed volunteers pictures with words above them they were told to ignore.

When they asked younger participants a question relating to the words, it was as if the distraction wasn’t there. The older participants however couldn’t avoid the distraction and so were able to use it to provide an answer. This shows that younger people can inhibit a distraction, but it’s stored in the minds of older adults.

Researchers found similar results in imaging studies, as explained by senior researcher Tarek Amer. “Brain activity revealed that, unlike younger adults, older adults remembered both relevant and irrelevant image categories.

“This suggests that the older adults were remembering these images when they were supposed to be ignoring them, supporting the idea that older adults process and store too much information.”

Not only is the information more difficult to find but, as the authors write, “over-reliance on prior knowledge by older adults can also increase memory errors, including recall of false memories.”

Although seniors may have more trouble remembering specific details and recalling things accurately, there’s a surprising bonus to being overloaded with information.

Treasure in The Clutter 

The researchers write, “…there might also be treasure in the clutter that can support other memory-dependent cognitive functions. In other words, the clutter of irrelevant information…might also provide surprising advantages in other tasks or contexts that benefit from extraneous knowledge.”

What are those advantages? Seniors, the researchers write, may be much better at using all the information they possess to make better decisions and for greater creativity.

“In research labs,” added Dr. Hasher, “we tend to focus on precision of memory, but in real life, precision hardly matters. As researchers, we may be overestimating the disadvantage that older adults have with their memory and underestimating the advantages.”

  1. https://www.baycrest.org/Baycrest-Pages/News-Media/News/Research/
  2. https://www.cell.com/trends/cognitive-sciences/fulltext/S1364-6613(21)00310-7