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November 29, 2005

BehindTheMedspeak: The more you forget, the better your memory


Seems a contradiction, doesn't it?

How can forgetting stuff lead to better recall?

Edward Vogel, who heads the Visual Working Memory and Attention Lab at the University of Oregon Department of Psychology, in work published in the November 24 issue of Nature, demonstrated that awareness — "visual working memory" — depends on your ability to filter out irrelevant information.

Said Vogel, in a press release about the paper, "Until now, it's been assumed that people with high capacity visual working memory had greater storage but actually, it's about the bouncer — a neural mechanism that controls what information gets into awareness."

In other words, it's not your memory capacity that makes your recall good or bad, it's how good you are at disregarding the irrelevant.

Their experiments used arrays of colored shapes and showed that individuals with high memory capacity were able to selectively ignore certain colors at will; those with less capable memories held all the shapes in mind simultaneously.

Vogel noted, however, that the latter propensity might not be entirely a bad thing: "Being a bit scattered tends to be a trait of highly imaginative people," he said.

So the next time you can't remember your name or who it is that just said hello to you, instead of beating on yourself and wishing you had a better memory, just chalk it up to your wildly imaginative self.

The graphic at the top of this post, summarizing the study results, shows the correlation between a person's memory capacity and how effective they are at keeping irrelevant items out.

Here's a link to the editor's summary of the Nature publication.

November 29, 2005 at 10:01 AM | Permalink


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