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Improving Memory Is Goal for U of R Student

A task board helps Susie Shepardson and other researchers keep track of their work.
A task board helps Susie Shepardson and other researchers keep track of their work.

“Love and Marriage... go together like a horse and carriage,” Frank Sinatra reminded his fans in the 1955 hit song.

But many things don’t seem to be connected in any way, yet we sometimes need to find a link. One example is having to think quickly of a connection between a person and his or her name so it can be recalled later. It’s called associative memory, the ability to learn and recall connections between unrelated items.

Studies show that senior citizens, when presented with a series of single items, are able to recall as well as younger adults which items they had seen.

But psychologists have noted that seniors, on average, have an associative memory deficit. In other words, older adults don’t perform as well as younger people when asked to recall whether they had seen paired, unrelated items.  The reasons are not yet known, but a University of Richmond senior wants to find out.

Susie Shepardson, a senior psychology major at the University of Richmond, is looking at the mental processes people use when they first see pictures and later recall what they saw.

“When you are studying something, you are encoding it in your memory. When you are tested on it, that’s retrieval or taking it out of your memory. Where is the deficit happening?  Is it happening at encoding or at retrieval?” Shepardson asks. She said that more work needs to be done in this area because providing answers could help seniors improve memory. But she sees some trends.

“It looks like, from the results that have come out of this lab, it is more in retrieval where the differences lie. Younger and older adults make the same kinds of associations when encoding information, but we see more deficits occurring at retrieval.”

Shepardson has designed and overseen experiments in which individuals are tested for their associative memory skills. In one recent series of experiments, 46 participants between 18 and 22 years of age and 46 between 65 and 90 were tested.  The tests were administered by other psychology students under Shepardson’s supervision.

Participants had three seconds to study each of 24 pairs of pictures on a computer screen. The pictures in each pair showed objects, people or situations that were not related to each other.

Next they were shown 24 more pairs. They had seen some of the pairs before, while other pairs contained pictures they had seen and not seen. Participants were asked to identify which were which.

“I’m asking people to think out loud during testing to see whether the differences between younger and older adults are occurring at encoding or retrieval,” Shepardson said.

“I’m also looking at a way in which we can manipulate the associative deficit and I’m doing that through emotion.” She explained that she selected some pictures because they tend to cause negative emotional reactions, while others were either positive or neutral.

“We know that, as we age, we have what we call a  ‘positivity effect’ where older adults  are able to remember more positive information,”  Shepardson said.  She wants to see if that knowledge can be used to decrease the associative deficit in senior citizens.

Jane Berry, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the University of Richmond, is overseeing Shepardson’s work.  “I’m her research mentor and supervisor, but we consider ourselves collaborators,” Berry said.

Shepardson said she will write a paper about her work and present it at a university College of Arts and Sciences seminar. She also will submit the paper for publication in a scientific journal.

The testing is not intended to diagnose or treat but to further research on thinking and memory processes in adults. Participants can receive a copy of the results when the study is completed.  Shepardson emphasized that individual test results are confidential. 

This fall Shepardson will begin a Ph.D.  program in psychology at Emory University in Atlanta, where she plans to continue her memory research. Eventually she plans a career in psychology research but is also interested in teaching. She now helps teach research methods as part of an Introduction to Psychology class at the University of Richmond.


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