Aging Fosters Good Memories

Here's some good news about aging: 

When it comes to remembering emotional images, we tend -- as we get older -- to do what the song said, and "accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative." 

Three California psychologists found that compared with younger adults, older adults recalled fewer negative than positive images. The memory bias favoring the recall of positive images increased in successively older age groups. The findings appeared in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

Psychologists have recently documented the tendency of older people to regulate their emotions more effectively than younger people, by maintaining positive feelings and lowering negative feelings. Researchers led by Susan Turk Charles, Ph.D., of the University of California, Irvine, wanted to understand how this happens -- and focused on the role of memory.

Charles and her colleagues conducted two studies to examine age differences in memory for positive, negative and neutral images of people, animals, nature scenes and inanimate objects. For example, among the "people" pictures, a positive image showed a man and a young boy at the beach watching seagulls overhead; a negative image showed a couple looking sorrowful as they stand in a cemetery and stare down at a tombstone; and a neutral image showed scuba divers checking their gear by the side of a dock.

In both experiments, the psychologists first showed participants the images. Next, they tested recall (how many they remembered) and recognition memory (whether they accurately picked what they saw from a larger group of images).

The first study tested 144 participants in groups of ages 18-29, 41-53 and 65-80. Older adults recalled fewer negative images relative to positive and neutral images. For the older adults, recognition memory also decreased for negative pictures. As a result, the younger adults remembered the negative pictures better.

In a second study of 64 participants (divided equally between ages 19-30 and ages 63-86), the authors ruled out mood as a contributing factor, by testing participants for mood and depression before presenting the images. Mood affected younger and older people alike, ruling it out as the reason why – again -- the largest age-related differences in memory were for negative images.

Although both younger and older adults spent more time viewing negative images, only the younger group recalled and recognized them better.

The research supports the "socioemotional selectivity" theory that, as people get older and become more aware of more limited time left in life, they direct their attention to more positive thoughts, activities and memories. "With age," write the authors, "people place increasingly more value on emotionally meaningful goals and thus invest more cognitive and behavioral resources in obtaining them."

Physiology may aid the process. Dr. Mara Mather, an author of the article, and colleagues have done preliminary brain research suggesting that in older adults, the amygdala is activated equally to positive and negative images, whereas in younger adults, it is activated more to negative images. This suggests that older adults encode less information about negative images, which in turn would diminish recall.

Source: American Psychological Association 

by Marc Auge
University of Minnesota Press, 2004
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Oblivion, as defined in this meditation on remembrance and forgetting, is the opposite of memory; it is the forgotten, the unremembered, the erased experience.

Just as life defines death, and vice versa, so to does memory define oblivion. "Memories are crafted by oblivion as the outlines of the shore are created by the sea," writes Marc Auge.

We cannot remember everything, the ethnographic anthropologist and philosopher points out. If we did, there would be no time left to live in the present or to make sense of the past. It makes a difference, then, what we remember and what is consigned to oblivion.

"Tell me what you forget," Auge proclaims, "and I will tell you who you are."

Translated from the French by Marjolijn de Jager, the text is divided into four progressive essays, beginning with the defining "Memory and Oblivion," "Life as a Narrative," "The Three Figures of Oblivion," and concluding with "The Duty to Forget."

Auge's message is that memory and oblivion are both necessary companions in a fully lived and experienced life.

Faulty Memories are Bad News

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