How specific is human memory?

    • Topic: Cognitive Development

    • Location: Hall of Human Life

    Humans can remember many things with a great deal of detail – consider your memories of different people, places, and things. While we know our memories can be very specific, scientists are not clear on the level of accuracy. We want to determine to what extent objects can be changed and still match our memory.

    In this study, adults (age 18 – 74) look at a group of abstract shapes, one at a time, while trying to remember each shape. Then adults will see more shapes and are asked to identify them as “old” (it is exactly the same as one seen before) or “new” (either completely new or changed from before). Some of the “new” shapes will be very similar to the shapes seen before. Participants will also rate how confident they are in their decisions (unsure, sure, or very sure).

    We predict that adults will be accurate in recognizing new shapes, but that recognition of distorted shapes will depend on how much the objects have changed. We hypothesize that most adults will not notice small alterations in shapes and will identify them as “old” The amount of distortion that is not recognized (i.e., rated as “old”) will indicate the level of detail at which these abstract shapes are remembered.

    This study will help us better understand how human memory is represented in the brain and how specific our memories are for fine details.

    This research is conducted at the Museum of Science, Boston by the Memory and Perception Laboratory at Boston College.

        » Memory and Perception Laboratory at Boston College

    Activities to Try in the Hall of Human Life

    Do You Ever Forget a Face?

    Find the “Do you ever forget a face?” link station in the Communities environment. Test your ability to recognize different types of faces.

    Were you better at remembering some type of faces than others? How does facial geometry, or broad shape of the face, affect your ability to remember different types of faces?

    Activities to Try at Home

    Little Details Memory

    Find a deck of cards and pull out pairs of cards (e.g., two sixes, two eights, etc.). Start with only the hearts and spades. Select as many pairs as you would like; more pairs will make the game more difficult.

    Shuffle the cards and place them face down in a grid. Flip over two cards at a time. If they match, keep them face up. If they don’t match, turn them both over so they are face down again. Try to uncover all of the pairs as quickly as possible. Keep track of your time.

    Now make the game harder by increasing the similarity between your cards. First, remove half of your pairs and then replace them the diamonds and clubs of the remaining numbers. This time only match red-to-red and black-to-black. Now make it even harder by only matching numbers hearts-to-clubs and diamonds-to-spades.

    How did each of the changes impact your time?

    For a real challenge find a second deck and use 8 of each number (i.e., all four suits, with two of each suit for every number). Can you do this only making pairs where both the number and suit match?

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