By Dr. Nora DeVoe, Ph.D.
Geriatric Care Manager


Aging and Understanding How Our Memory Works

Certain types of memory deteriorate as we age, and understanding how our memory works can help us use it more efficiently. We will highlight four key points about memory, two of which we will focus on this month.

First, we tend to remember interesting information that we process deeply. Second, we remember visuospatial information better than verbal information. Third, we remember information that is connected to things we already know. Fourth, we remember information on which we test ourselves. Understanding these key principles will definitely help you remember things and therefore improve your memory.

Early models of memory assumed that repetition was the key to getting information into long-term memory. The assumption was that if you wanted to remember something, then it needed to be transferred from short-term memory into long-term memory and the more you rehearsed a piece of information, the more likely it was to get transferred into long-term memory.

This assumption also underlies the standard strategy that most people use when they try to remember new information; just repeat it over and over in hopes that it will get burned into long-term memory. But simple repetition does not always work.

There is an alternative framework based on depth of processing rather than number of repetitions in increasing memory. The basic idea is that you remember information that you think hard about and process deeply much better than information that you only process superficially. So rather than just repeating information over and over again, you are better off elaborating on the information and thinking about its associations and implications. It helps if the information we are trying to remember is interesting or strange. When we encounter information that is unusual or particularly interesting to us, then we naturally pay more attention to it and process it more deeply. Accordingly, we also remember it better. In fact, if you can transform the information you want to remember into a form that is strange, quirky, or funny, then you are much more likely to remember it.

We remember visuospatial information better than verbal information. In fact, there is evidence that our long-term memory system was designed to remember information about the locations of visual objects. The hippocampus is the brain area most associated with episodic memory, and it tends to shrink as we age, which might explain why episodic or short-term memory tends to get worse as we get older. The hippocampus is also the region typically damaged in patients with amnesia.

Neuroscientists have begun to explore how the hippocampus works at the level of individual cells. Specifically, a number of experiments have recorded data from individual neurons in the hippocampus to investigate what makes those neurons fire. What makes many of these cells fire is spatial location. In particular, scientists have discovered what are now called place cells and grid cells in the hippocampus of different types of animals. Place cells got their name because they tend to fire when the animal is in a particular place in their environment. In human terms, you might have some place cells that fire when you are in the living room and other place cells that fire when you are in the kitchen.

Grid cells are similar to place cells except they respond to multiple locations throughout the environment in a kind of grid. These studies demonstrate, that at a very fundamental level, our hippocampus is designed to process spatial information. This makes sense if you think about it. Before the development of writing and math, it seems likely that remembering spatial locations was the most important function of memory. Do you remember where to find shelter? Do you remember where the food and water are?

Furthermore, consistent with the scientific findings, a number of psychological experiments have demonstrated that we are much better at remembering visual and spatial information than we are at remembering verbal information. Next time, we will look at remembering information that is connected to things we already know and how we remember information better when we test ourselves on it.

Back to After 50 Home Page
Nora DeVoe is a Gerontologist specializing in Eldercare and Caregiver issues. She may be reached at (716) 667-7299.  

Dr. Nora is a ....