The Subtleties of Memory

All disputes are premised on what occurred in the past with the view of resolving them by looking forward. We are often told not to “dwell on the past” but to “look forward” in trying to figure out how to resolve the issues.

Thus, all disputes involve our memories. And… as much as we would like to think they serve us well, we find that we can’t always remember things or that it takes us longer to remember than we would like. Especially, as we get older! But, this does not mean, us baby boomers are “losing it”!

A recent study shows the subtleties of our memories. In the New York Times Science section on January 28, 2014, Benedict Carey discusses the “Older Mind May Just Be a Fuller Mind” or the notion that our minds do not decline with age; it’s just that there is more stuff (i.e., increased knowledge) in our memory banks and so it takes longer to process and retrieve the information we seek to recall. Mr. Carey’s article is based on a study conducted by Michael Ramscar and several others entitled “The Myth of Cognitive Decline: Non-Linear Dynamics of Lifelong Learning” published January 13, 2014 in Topics in Cognitive Science, Vol 6, issue 1, pages 5-42 (January 2014).

In the study, Mr. Ramscar gives examples of older folks having more information to sift through as the reason it takes them longer to remember. One example is remembering names; as any baby boomer can tell you, it is harder to remember names as you grow older. Indeed, the study showed that on average, it will take someone in their 70’s about a half a second longer to remember a name than when she was 20 years old. (Id. at 27.) Why? Because the possibilities of someone’s name have grown exponentially over the years. In the 1880’s, there were about 100 possibilities of a female name whereas today, that possibility is well over 2,000! As the author notes “… in the 300 years prior to 1750, 50% of men and 50% of women in England were consistently given one of just three highly frequent male or female names….” (Id at 24.)

Another example is more poignant: Suppose someone asks what does “PFC” stand for? A baby boomer with so many years of experience may come up with three alternatives: pre-frontal cortex in neuroscience; post-focus compression in linguistics; or private, first class in the military, or a myriad of other examples depending upon her profession and experience. (Id. at 18) By contrast, a 20 year old may not have any notion of what “PFC” means and so will answer the question very quickly ( “I dunno know!”). The baby boomer, having to sift through memory banks of perhaps 50 years of experience will take a few seconds longer to answer since she knows of at least three possibilities. (Id.)

Finally, the study notes that “…as people age, they encode less contextual information in memory” (Id. at 34) The reason is that the variety of their environments shrink and so reduces the variety of the situations in which they learn new things. For example, one living in an assisted living facility will encounter much less variety than one living at home and going out every day. As a consequence, the former will find it more difficult to retrieve the older memories than the latter. (Id. at 34.) I guess it is akin to the “squeaky wheel gets the grease” notion; with disuse, it is harder to remember a particular piece of information that was used repeatedly years ago.

The conclusion is that when listening to an older person tell her story of what happened, be patient; it is not that she is “losing it”; she simply has more stuff in her memory banks to sift through to come up with the right word or answer. (Yet, another example of where an “assumption” can lead you astray!)

… Just something to think about!

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By |2017-05-13T07:29:04+00:00February 21st, 2014|Research|Comments Off on The Subtleties of Memory

About the Author:

Phyllis Pollack
Phyllis G. Pollack, Esq. the principal of PGP Mediation (, has been a mediator in Los Angeles, California since 2000. She has conducted over 1700 mediations. As an attorney with more than 35 years experience, she utilizes her diverse background to resolve business, commercial, international trade, real estate, employment and lemon law disputes at both the state and federal trial and state appellate court levels. Currently, she is the in­coming chair of State Bar of California’s ADR Committee. She has served on the board of the California Dispute Resolution Council (CDRC) (2012­2013), is a past president and past treasurer of the SCMA Education Foundation (2011­2013) and a past president (2010) of the Southern California Mediation Association (SCMA). Ms. Pollack received her BA degree in sociology in 1973 from Newcomb College of Tulane University and her JD degree from Tulane University School of Law in 1977. She is an active member of both the Louisiana and California bars. Pollack believes that it is never too late to mediate a dispute and recommends mediation over litigation as it allows the parties to decide their own solutions.