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"Mis-Remembering" -- The Discovery Files

The Discovery Files
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Psychological research suggests that memory confusion in older adults is partly caused by their reliance on schematic memory, which helps people remember the gist of an event, but not necessarily the details. The absence of detail-related memory could lead to difficulty in distinguishing between a memory of something that actually happened and a false memory -- a memory a person thought happened, but didn't.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

I remember -- I think.

I'm Bob Karson with the Discovery Files, from the National Science Foundation.

Psychologists at Penn State are studying how memory formation changes as people get older. They suggest maybe Aunt Liz complaining about forgetting might actually be because she's "mis-remembering."

The team says as people age, they're more likely to rely on "schematic" memory not big on details, but helps you remember the gist of an event. By relying too much on this generalized memory, there might be more of a chance of them filling in erroneous details, yet believing they're accurate. Creating a false memory and possibly a lot of confusion.

(Sound effect: factory sounds) There's a region of the brain -- the Hippocampus -- that processes memories. As people age, much of that processing shifts (Sound effect: truck back up "beep, beep") from the frontal area of that region toward the back. No one yet knows why, but it may be that different sub-regions process and retrieve real and false memories.

The researchers monitored brain activity in a group of 20 seniors, and had them study a picture --say, a farmyard -- for 10 seconds. Next, they showed them pictures of individual objects and asked which ones were in the original scene -- to see if they remembered correctly or were creating false memories.

The team believes it may be possible to help seniors by training them to focus more on details, and less on just "getting the gist." An important brain study -- I hope you got the "gist."

"The discovery files" covers projects funded by the government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research -- brought to you, by you! Learn more at or on our podcast.

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