“I know I’ve heard that story before … but where?”

If you find you can’t recall the source of information, you’re not alone.

We are bombarded with information these days, from television, the internet, newspapers, magazines. It’s hard to keep track of where it came from.

“As you get older, you may remember the information but forget where you learned it,” explains Dr. Nicole Anderson, researcher at Baycrest’s Kunin-Lunenfeld Applied Research Unit. “The source is more vulnerable to memory loss than the facts themselves. That’s because remembering the source of information requires more involvement of the frontal lobes, which tend to decrease activity with age.”

But there may be room for improvement if you train your brain, suggests Dr. Anderson. She is conducting a study into whether training can improve an older adult’s ability to remember the source of information.

Study participants sit in front of a computer where they are given a series of words, either visual (on the screen) or auditory (through the speakers). When the same word is repeated the participant needs to say “yes” if it is repeated in the same format it was originally presented, or “no” if the format was changed. At first, the repeated words are given at small intervals and with few words in between. As they progress, the number of words and time between the repeated words increase.

Two aspects of memory are tested:

  • Recollection – remembering the item and how they experienced it.
  • Familiarity – whether they know it had been presented, but can’t remember its format.

“For many older adults, this is incredibly difficult to do. Even after just a couple seconds delay, they can’t recall whether they heard the word or saw it,” notes Dr. Anderson.

“Happily, many of the participants are showing improvement. After nine days, with 45 minutes of training per day, they get significantly better. They can respond correctly with 22 intervening words,” says Dr. Anderson.

Does this improve memory in daily activities?

After their training, participants filled out questionnaires. The results so far indicate that those who completed the training are:

  • more satisfied with their memory;
  • make fewer memory mistakes;
  • are less anxious about their memory.

Perhaps this study will lead to the development of a tool that people can use at home to improve recollection, says Dr. Anderson.

She is also looking at brain scans of participants both before and after the study to see whether there are any changes to brain activity in the frontal lobes. She is hoping the scans will show that more networks are being formed within the brain.

To improve recollection try:

  • paying attention to the source and intentionally putting it into memory;
  • binding the story by making a connection to the person who told you the story so you won’t repeat it to the same person.

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