Study: Young and Old Remember Differently

Think back to your first kiss and try to remember exactly what happened.

If you remember precisely what your sweetheart was wearing, where you were when you puckered up for the first time, whether your friend swooned or giggled, and other specific details associated with the event, chances are you're still pretty young.

If you can't remember how either of you were dressed, but you can recall clearly what that relationship really amounted to, and what else was going on in your life at the time, and whether the United States was at war, chances are you're an old fuddy duddy.

At least that's the implication of findings by Canadian researchers who are studying how our memories change with age.

Young people are better at recalling details, according to the study. But seniors are just as good, and maybe even better, at putting their memories in the right context and adding perspective as they flesh out the details and create a broader picture.

A Notable Distinction in Remembering

"We asked older and younger people to tell us about things that happened in their lives and we found that there were large differences in the way they talked about their past," says neuropsychologist Brian Levine of The Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care and the University of Toronto.

"Younger adults tended to focus on specific details, the unfolding of the story, the sensory and perceptual information, what thoughts and feelings they might have had at the time of the event," he says.

"Older adults also talked about that sort of information," says Levine. "But they tended to include less detail and more general factual information that doesn't so much relate to the specific event but relates to extended knowledge, the significance of that event in their life, and other facts that might apply to more than one event.

"We found two very distinct styles of talking about past events."

Wisdom of the Aged

The study suggests that despite the fact that we lose some of our ability to recall details as we age, we gain in our ability to add depth and perception, possibly because we have adapted to a world that has changed greatly during our lifetime.

"That's the whole idea of wisdom," Levine says. "Older adults don't need to focus on the details as much. They are focused more on the general patterns that are helpful in decision making, which is probably why they have positions of responsibility.

"Their memory is different. If the goal is to remember exactly what happened, they are not going to do as well as younger adults. But that's not always the most important goal."

The Study in Detail

Levine and doctoral candidate Eva Svoboda studied 15 healthy younger adults, aged 19-34, and 15 healthy older adults, aged 66-89. That's not a large sample, Levine admits, but he says he feels comfortable with the results partly because other research projects have reached similar conclusions.

Levine's study is in the December issue of Psychology and Aging, published by the American Psychological Association.

Participants were asked to choose events from five periods of their lives, ranging from early childhood to the previous year, and recall as many details about the event as possible. In addition, the participants were prodded by the researchers to stimulate the memory process, and the results were evaluated and tabulated.

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.