Remember to remember

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Psychologists from the Jagiellonian University are investigating ways to support memory function in elderly people.

We have to remember a lot of things every day: we need to call someone, arrange an appointment, answer e-mails, pick up things that we will need at work, do shopping on our way to work, etc. Electronic calendars remind us about these tasks, but we have so many things to do (and always so many new errands to enter into our agendas), that we cannot do everything at once, so we postpone certain tasks.

Prospective memory is responsible for remembering what should be done in the future. It helps us store plans in our minds and then recall them at the right time, i.e., when they should be done. Thus, not only do we have to remember that we should arrange an appointment at the doctor's on the phone, but this thought should also appear at the moment when it is possible to do so, e.g., early in the morning.

Intense research on prospective memory has been conducted worldwide for only two decades. This research clearly shows that remembering our intentions is a great challenge for the mind. It tends to be particularly difficult for the elderly, due to the fact that general cognitive abilities weaken with age. This problem also has practical consequences — without a fully functioning memory, it is easy to forget to take medicine, pay the bills, or turn off the iron. Elderly people who encounter these kinds of problems are unable to live safely and independently.

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Support the memory

A team of scientists from the Applied Memory Research Laboratory at the Institute of Psychology answers how prospective memory in elderly people can be supported. The team, headed by Professor Agnieszka Niedzwieńska, has been carrying out a project under an international grant financed by the National Centre for Science since 2011. Scientists are analyzing, among other things, ways to support prospective memory that are based on the regularity and relative repetitiveness of the lifestyles of the elderly. If an elderly person knows what he or she will be doing at certain times of the day, this person may try to associate an intention with a planned activity, making it easier to remember the intention at the right moment. If, for example, an elderly person has to remember to phone the bank between 1:00 and 3:00 P.M., and they know that they watch their favorite early afternoon TV show every day, then associating the plan to phone the bank with the TV show may increase the chances that the person will automatically think about the task while watching television.

Other analyzed methods refer to the fact that elderly people, in comparison to young people, seem to care more about plans connected with other people, i.e., about requests, promises, or obligations. Thus, linking errands with a social context may facilitate performing the tasks. So far, research has proven that if a simple laboratory task, such as pressing a button every ten minutes, is presented as a personal request from the scientist, elderly people will remember it better than if it is just a task to do during the experiment. Scientists from the Jagiellonian University have proven that feedback about whether or not the person remembered his or her previous intentions has a similar effect. Among the elderly, providing such feedback in an impersonal form, such as on a computer screen, does not improve their ability to remember plans. However, if feedback is communicated "live" by someone during a conversation, it will be better noted in their minds.

They also analyzing the effectiveness of external memory aids, such as entering tasks that need to be done on a calendar, or writing them down on post-it notes stuck to the refrigerator door. The usefulness of such notes was analyzed in a group of elderly people who had more serious memory deficits than the average person in their age group. The results of the experiments suggest that notes are useful, but only if they are positioned in a way that ensures they are checked regularly. Entries on a calendar or a note placed among many others on the refrigerator door will not help an elderly person with memory deficits because such a person will not be used to reading them regularly. However, a single, "eye-catching" note displayed in a very visible spot, which will attract the person's attention many times during the day and which the person will read, willingly or not, may be very helpful.

The Applied Memory Research Laboratory also carries out other projects devoted to human memory. Everyone interested may apply to participate as a subject. Examples of these projects are as follows: Krystian Barzykowski is conducting research on involuntary autobiographical memories, Kaja Szarras is testing the effectiveness of methods of improving prospective memory in young people, and Elżbieta Ślusarczyk analyzes how preschoolers cope with tasks to be completed in the future. See also:

Virtual Week

In the course of research, prospective memory is tested with the use of a computer board game called Virtual Week. This method has been developed by Professor Peter Rendell from the Australian Catholic University in Melbourne – which is international research partner of the scientists from the Jagiellonian University in Kraków. "This method has been successfully used in numerous laboratories in Europe and throughout the world. Its advantage consists in the similarity of laboratory tasks to those performed in everyday life. Virtual Week is a kind of board game similar to Monopoly but transferred to the computer screen. It simulates completing subsequent days of the week," explains Professor Niedźwieńska. The participant has to remember to perform a whole series of prospective tasks each virtual day (take medicine during meals, send a message to a friend, call the bank at noon, etc.). Of course, participants do not perform these tasks in reality, but, at the moment when the tasks should be completed, the participant must search for the task's equivalent on the board and then click on it. In an analogy to situations in everyday life, parts of the tasks are always repeated in the same form (e.g., taking an antibiotic every day during breakfast), and some elements change every day. Some tasks have to be done at a certain time according to a virtual clock in the game, while others have to be done when an event is revealed on the board (e.g., a friend phones).

Research team: Professor Agnieszka Niedźwieńska — Jagiellonian University; Professor Peter Rendell — Australian Catholic University; Beata Janik, PhD; Krystian Barzykowski, PhD; Alicja Leszczyńska, MA — all from Jagiellonian University