Study: Young and Old Remember Differently

The younger participants were consistently better at recalling specific details that were "internal" to the event, or directly related to the event itself. But older participants were significantly better at recalling "external" details, or memories about other factors that were important but may have had little to do with the event itself.

That indicates that our memories change as we age, but are they still accurate? Is it possible that many of the "external" details that an older person assigns to a particular event are misplaced, or even fictional?

Putting It All in Perspective

Levine admits that our memory banks are very tricky, but he says the important thing here is how the older subjects remembered past events, not whether their memories were historically accurate.

"There's always that problem in this sort of study," he says. "Unless you were there you don't know exactly what happened. But in older adults, we weren't so much interested in the accuracy. We were interested in the style, the process in which they related the event."

So even if seniors get some of the details wrong, the perspective they bring to the table may more than compensate for their faulty memory, he says.

Maybe, he suggests, we owe it all to our adaptive efforts during our days as hunter-gatherers. The young males needed to remember specifically how to thrust that spear, or which tree to climb up if they missed. But they relied on the elders to know where the prey was most likely to be found at that time of the year, based on memories of past events that went far beyond the events themselves.

So this study suggests that our memory banks may still be useful, even if we have a little more trouble logging on. Some of the details might not be available anymore, but there is a rich fabric woven from the threads of our lives, and those memories, he says, may be just as important as the details.

Levine, by the way, is 39 years old, a toddler by some measures, but even he admits his memory isn't what it used to be.

"One of the pitfalls of this profession is you grow exquisitely sensitive to your own memory loss," he says. "It's probably not as bad as I think, but it's certainly not as good as it used to be."

That's probably true for most of us.

Now, if I could just remember that first kiss.

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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