- Memory loss seems like an inevitable feature of aging, especially with current news stories.
- New research shows how these attitudes about aging can penetrate one's confidence in one's own memory.
- Some effort plus self-confidence may be all a person needs to keep their memory in shape no matter their age.
Memory is in the news with the release of the Special Counsel Report claiming that President Joe Biden suffers from severe memory lapses. It goes without saying that these claims were made without the benefit of any psychological testing. However, this fact seems to escape public attention. Apart from any political damage this inflicts on Biden, there are statements in the report that would lead anyone, President or not, to worry about their memory as they age. One quote from the New York Times article particularly stands out as emerging from the report: "It would be difficult to convince a jury that 'a former president well into his 80s' was guilty of a felony that 'requires a mental state of willfulness.'"
Such statements tap into the general belief age is associated with inevitable mental decline, a view that permeates many people’s everyday speech. Indeed, reading about the assessment of Biden's memory could make anyone, whether 80-ish or not, wonder if there is no way to escape age's toll on your memory.
Yet, how sure are researchers that memory actually does fall apart in a steady drip-drip of loss? Even one of the world’s greatest experts on cognitive aging, Baycrest Academy’s Fergus Craik (2023), suggests that there is a great deal of neuroplasticity in later life and that much of what goes wrong in memory isn’t due to faulty recall. Instead, faulty encoding of new information is the culprit, a process further hampered when people don't put enough energy into trying to lock this new information in place. As such, the data fit the well-known adage about memory in general: “If you don’t encode, you can’t retrieve.” Put your effort into encoding, and you could avoid what seems like an inevitable mental decay.
How Can Encoding Be Improved?
There may be neurophysiological changes in later life that hamper that all-important process of encoding, as Craik also points out, so not all of the poorer performance of older adults can be attributed to a lack of effort in the data entry stage of memory. However, given that your brain will do what your brain wants to do, how can you nudge it to become more efficient?
A new study by Hong Kong Technical Institute’s Michael Yeung (2024) provides some potential answers. Related to “effort” is the process known as “metamemory,” or your thoughts and beliefs about how to snap your mental powers into shape. Specifically, “the knowledge and monitoring of one’s own memory” includes control, in which you “deploy strategies to enhance subsequent learning and memory.” When you go through that all-important encoding process of new information, you can decide how hard it will be to recall it later, and when you then need to retrieve it, you can similarly try to predict whether the information will come back to you.
You can relate to this process if you think about the increasingly common two-factor authentication that many apps and online sites use to validate your identity. You see the six-digit code pop up on your phone or in your email, and then it’s up to you to remember it long enough to key it in. When you see those numbers, do you panic and think there’s no way they’ll stick around long enough in your head to recall them, even for a few seconds? Or does this seem so easy that it doesn’t trouble you at all?
Prior research, Yeung maintains, hasn’t come to a clear set of conclusions about how effective monitoring is when it comes to real-life situations such as these, or at least as tested in the lab. Describing this effect as “elusive,” he suggests that part of the reason for the lack of clarity is that there’s more than simple memory involved in metamemory. This ability to think about your thinking comes from “executive functioning,” a feature associated with the quality of your brain’s ability to plan and organize. The goal of his study was to disentangle the two possibilities.
Building Confidence to Build Metamemory
The Hong Kong researcher believed that not only would executive functioning and metamemory predict cognitive performance in his older participants but that feelings of confidence could become critical as well. He divided the standard paired-associate learning task (associating faces with pictures) into the phases of judgments of learning (JOL), or predicting the outcome of performance, from feeling of knowing (FOK), or thinking an item was familiar. Additionally, he added retrospective confidence judgments (RCFs) into the study’s model, to see how people could help or hinder their performance through this bit of mental cheerleading.
The 104 Chinese participants in the study ranged from 18 to 79 years old, stratified by age and sex into three groups. In the test phase of the learning task, participants answered questions about the recall-ability of each pair (JOL) as well as their belief that the face was one they had seen (FOK). Then they provided a simple confidence rating of whether they were correct or not on a 1-9 scale.
You could practice this task yourself the next time you have one of those authenticator screens pop up, and this will give you a sense of what participants were asked to do. The executive functioning task that the research team gave to participants also includes one you can try out yourself, namely, generating as many different animals as you can in one minute.
On average, older adults did remember fewer pairs, but they also had high confidence in both JOL and FOK. The predictive model the authors tested showed, more importantly, that higher confidence ratings, plus better executive functioning, were significant predictors of memory scores among the older adult participants. As the authors concluded: “Thus, the increased confidence of learning represents a compensatory mechanism that mitigates the age-related decline in memory.”
Change Your Beliefs to Change Your Memory
The findings from Yeung’s study are just the latest to show the importance of the attitudes older adults have about their memory in helping them perform better. The data suggest just how much a defeatist attitude about aging can potentially contribute to unnecessary declines in your own performance, not to mention the performance of older adults in general.
These defeatist attitudes may emerge in part from reality, as there certainly are brain-related changes that could contribute to poorer cognitive performance. However, even here, Yeung’s results suggest that by building your executive functioning, you can double the impact of greater confidence. Word fluency tasks are easy to find everywhere, as are other online executive functioning tools. Even a simple casual videogame can provide this kind of training. Scavenger hunts, word-finding (and word-generating) games, and matching games that involve strategy are not only fun but also give your prefrontal cortex something useful to do.
Perhaps the best antidote to losing your memory is to brush aside the implications of the current debate about Biden's memory. Think of them as a prime example of "everyday ageism," an experience sadly affecting over 90 percent of Americans. Defining yourself as mentally weak will only bring your cognitive abilities down beyond whatever lapses you might show now and then.
To sum up, both Craik's and Yeung's studies show it’s not just encoding that can help your memory as you age, but also your feeling that you will be able to get that new information stored in a place where it will be findable. With memory, as with so much in life, the more you succeed, the more likely you’ll feel that you can.
Craik, F. I. M. (2023). Memory, aging and the brain: Old findings and current issues. Aging Brain, 4. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nbas.2023.100096
Yeung, M. K. (2024). Metamemory and executive function mediate the age-related decline in memory. Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1355617723011451