Brain Health,

#115: Collaborative Recall

February 12, 2016

At first blush, “Collaborative Recall” might not sound like a good thing.

After all, Total Recall didn’t work out so great for Arnold.  And we recently learned from memory expert Elizabeth Loftus about the malleability of memory — how long-term memories are highly suggestible, and changes can lead to inadvertent “edits” to our autobiographical history.  A rather unsettling notion.

In Episode 115, Jesse speaks with Professor Amanda Barnier to explore the flip side of the coin.  Are there instances when “team remembering” can enhance rather than inhibit our memories?  When do we remember best in isolation, and when with a partner or as part of a group?

Yes, Professor Barnier acknowledges, there are times when social remembering can infect our memories, making them less accurate.  However, by remembering together — creating a sort of “extended mind” — we can also improve our recall, particularly if those doing the remembering are part of a long term partnership.  But of course, there are qualifiers.

Simply being in a long term relationship with someone is not a guarantee that the two of you will remember together any better than if you were remembering on your own…

Syncing Your Memories

Barnier tells us that in order for the minds of older couples to properly “sync up,” they need to be operating from the same playbook.  Don’t count on your partner to help you remember something if the two of you are not on the same page.

While overall relationship satisfaction or happiness doesn’t seem to affect a couple’s ability to remember together, more immediate relationship dynamics — like choosing and using a consistent memory strategy — does impact recall ability.  This is especially true as we age.

Younger couples who bicker or butt heads prior to a memory exercise remember just as well a couple of lovebirds — that conflict doesn’t affect their ability to remember.

But for couples with a couple dozen anniversaries under their belt, those relationships with more of a “we” than an “I” focus — those who finish each others’ sentences, for example — collaborative memory can be of real practical benefit.  Professor Barnier refers to this process as “social scaffolding.”

This extended cognition process is proving to be most helpful when memories are “under threat.”  Benefits can range from delaying the onset of Alzheimer’s to enhancing recovery after a brain injury.   Which is not to say that younger folk don’t benefit from remembering together also… but their benefits may be of a more social-bonding nature.

Speaking of social-bonding…

What about the memory “Collective” with a capital “C”?  Jesse discussed the “Extended Mind Hypothesis” with John Danaher in Episode 76 — the idea that our minds include aspects of our external environments — smart phones, Twitter feeds, Facebook pages and maybe more.

Professor Barnier speculates that it remains to be seen whether modern day tech enhances our ability to remember — but it certainly can reduce our ability to forget.  Our increasing connectivity creates a proximity that defies both distance and physical barriers — meaning that avoiding someone we’d rather forget is more difficult than it once was.

But back to remembering…

There is still much to learn about our imperfect, impermanent, but highly integrated memories.  Listen in to learn from Professor Barnier about specifics that influence the success of collaborative recall and improve your memory — be it in one skull or two!

PS:  If you haven’t already, subscribe to our weekly newsletter, the Brain Breakfast.  Your brain will thank you!

Show Notes

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