Memory Is More Accurate Than We May Think

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BrainMatters Story
Think back to a special day you experienced in the last year. How confident are you that you can accurately remember the events of that day? What about a similarly special day, but 10 years ago? Or 40 years ago?
If your confidence decreased with each question, you are not alone. Many of us fear that our memory is unreliable and that it will only worsen as we get older. Fortunately, the results of a recent Baycrest study tell a different, much more empowering, story.
In the study, which examined people’s ability to recall the details of past events, research participants scored an average of 94 per cent on memory accuracy. This high level of accuracy was observed regardless of the participant’s age or the amount of time that had elapsed since the event took place.
“This study shows us that memory accuracy is actually quite good under normal circumstances, and it remains stable as we age,” says Dr. Brian Levine, senior scientist at Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute (RRI) and professor of psychology and neurology at the University of Toronto. “These results will be helpful for understanding memory in healthy aging and can contribute to identifying differences in memory among those who develop dementia.”
“The high accuracy we observed is surprising to many, given the general pessimism about memory accuracy among scientists and the prevalent idea that memory for one-time events is not to be trusted,” says Dr. Nicholas Diamond, the study’s lead researcher, former graduate student at the RRI and current postdoctoral researcher at the University of Pennsylvania.
In fact, about 400 academics (including memory scientists) surveyed as part of this study estimated memory accuracy to be around 40 per cent at best, expecting this score to be even lower for older participants or with greater amounts of time elapsing since the events. This pessimism originates from earlier studies showing that memory can be manipulated using certain testing methods, which is not representative of the way we remember events in our regular lives.

To test memory accuracy in this study, the researchers created an immersive, scientifically controlled event for their participants: a 30-minute, audio-guided tour of art and other items displayed at Baycrest. Two days later, participants were asked to tell the researchers everything they could remember about the tour. The responses were recorded and then verified against the facts.
Using standardized, verifiable events to test memory is an innovative approach, as scientists typically use artificial laboratory stimuli, such as random word lists, rather than real-life experiences. Alternatively, they may test participants’ memory for personal past experiences, which cannot be verified.
The results showed that participants’ accuracy was high in both cases, though, as expected, the number of details they remembered decreased with age and time. At best, they recalled about 25 per cent of their art tour. Generally speaking, this means that we can be reassured that our memories remain accurate, even if details fade with time and age.

While forgetting details is normal across all ages, there are things you can do to strengthen your memory recall today and for the future.
Spaced repetition: We all know repetition improves memorization. To make repetition more effective, wait a few seconds before repeating the item you want to memorize, then wait a few seconds longer. Increasing the intervals between repetitions helps to firmly establish the memory.

Retrieval practice: Practising retrieving information from your memory is even more effective than studying that information again. After you learn something, try to remember it. Then take a break and repeat.
Organization: We remember information better when we mentally organize it. Try organizing your grocery list into different categories. For example, group apples, pears and oranges together in one category and garbage bags and all-purpose cleaner in another.
Context matching: It’s easier to retrieve information from your memory when you’re in a similar context (for example, a similar place or even mood) to the one in which you learned that information. If you want to be able to remember something in a specific location, try studying or rehearsing it there. If you want something to be more memorable overall, study or rehearse it in many different contexts.
Visualization: When you hear verbal information, try visualizing it in your mind — we remember information much better when we experience it with multiple senses.

Research at Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute (RRI) advances our understanding of the complexity of the human brain. With a primary focus on aging and brain health, RRI scientists and other researchers across the Baycrest campus promote effective care and improved quality of life for older adults, helping them enjoy all that life has to offer as they age. To support research at Baycrest, visit
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