Poor Memory Leads to Fame

Val Sears

In the scientific world of computers, galactic black holes, space ships and gene manipulation, there's also a place for researching why grand father can't remember where he left his glasses.

One of Canada's foremost behavioral scientists - this year's winner of a two year Canada Council Killam Fellowship- is a cheerful, 46 year old Scottish born psychologist who has devoted his life to memory.

Dr.Fergus Craik, who helped found the Centre for Research in Human Development at the Erindale campus of the University of Toronto, has “rather a poor memory myself... that's why I study it.”

But he is also, the Killam Award says, “a scholar of exceptional ability,” and he is part of a team of psychologists who have made Toronto an international centre of memory research.

New framework

Craik's particular field is memory of the aging: Why does it fail? Do the elderly really have a better memory for long- ago events than who was for tea yesterday? What's going on inside those graying heads anyway?

For many years behavioral science theorized that there were probably two compartments for memory in the human brain: One short-term “reception room” and another long term, permanent storage space.

It was assumed that we received information, shuffled it around a bit in the reception room, discarded most of it, but sent off the important stuff for permanent filing and later retrieval.

“After Dr. Craik and his colleague Dr.Robert Lockhart wrote a paper back in 1972 on levels of processing in memory,” says Prof. Endel Tulving of the University's psychology department, “there was a whole new framework for the study of memory. No one could escape the influence of that paper. It was seminal.”

What Craik concluded was that the two compartment theory was not an accurate description of how memory works. what really counted was “encoding,” how we process the information so that we can relate to the body of knowledge we already have.

Complex coding

If we take the time and have the “mental energy” to make the information both meaningful and unique then we've got it for good.

The trouble with the elderly is that their mental energy has run down; they tend to see things in stereotypes and generalities; they won't take the time to encode names, or the location of glasses, in a specific way.

“There are various ways of encoding,” says Craik, still speaking with slight Scottish burr, although he has been at the University of Toronto since 1971. “A child does it by rote, repeating a name over and over until he's got it.

“An adult's encoding is more complex. He sees information in terms of meaning, interrelationships or imagery.

“But what really makes it stick in his mind is if he can relate it to a body knowledge he already has.

“We know that chess masters can play up to 30 games at a time, keeping the play patterns in their heads. But if we scatter the chess pieces at random, so he has nothing to relate them to, his memory is no better than anyone else's.”

One of the tests that Craik and his research assistant, Jan Rabinowitz,do, is to offer subjects a list of words. Before each word, they are asked one of three questions: Does the word begin with the letter “R”? Does it rhyme with “train”? Is it a fruit?

They found that subjects who could relate the word to a category they were familiar with and had some knowledge- of (fruit) could remember the word much better than those with letters or rhymes to go on.

“Of course, we had to exclude poets,” says Rabinowitz.

Craik is a tall, easy going man, with long, graying hair and a casual, deprecating view of the solemnity of his work “a lot of it is just common sense.”

But he has an international reputation as editor of the New York based Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior.He was a principal speaker at the 1980 International Congress of Psychology in Leipzig in 1980 “that's the psychology Olympics,' he says and he has a status that attracts students to his work.

“When he offered me a job,” says Jan Rabinowitz, who was studying memory at the University of California in San Diego, “I leaped at the chance. He's the best there is.”

From his laboratory at Erindale College and his comfortable home on the western edge of Toronto, he scours Mississauga for elderly volunteers to help with his work.

“I speak at Community centres and places like that,” he says. “Mostly, I guess, the elderly are university alumni people with connections at the university. We don't pay them, although the young student volunteers get $3 for their time.”

Craig came to Canada from Liverpool where he had been working on the psychological aspects of aging.

New experiment

“The University of Toronto was very strong in psychology and I really wanted to work here. I guess I've always been interested in unravelling psychological puzzles, doing experiments, that sort of thing. In fact, I guess I spent most of my free time dreaming up new experiments. That's how I get my kicks.”

His wife is studying for her doctorate in theatre history at the University of Toronto. They have two teenage children.

Some of Craik's work is difficult to untangle, involving such concepts as “metamemory,” how much people know about what helps them memorize. But a good deal of the research are simply word associated tests under various conditions.

“In computer terms,” he says, “we are the software people. We don't concern ourselves with the hardware of the brain, cells neurons, that sort of thing. We want to know, when the hardware works, how memory performs.”

What they have learned over years of testing is that young brains respond better to specific memory cues, such as relating the word “table” to “hat” rather than the general term “furniture.” The elderly don't make the unique association (hat) but tend to respond to the general term. This erodes their memory.

But draining the young of some mental energy by forcing them to perform two tasks at once, such as memorizing words while adding columns of figures Craik was able to show their memory performance deteriorated to the level of the elderly.

The implication seemed clear: Old people do not have the mental energy to encode specifically and meaningfully. They just sort of drift along with generalities.

Craik's research is heading in two practical directions. How to help the elderly deal with their memory problems and to try to “index” memory loss as a clue to more serious problems such as Alzheimer's disease, which produces crippling memory failure.

“Old people find memory loss a real difficulty.” he says. “Not being able to remember the name of a person you just met at a cocktail party is a universal complaint of all ages. But for the elderly, there are some things new things they simply must be able to recall.

“The way to do it is to make the event or person in some way unique and to relate it to some body of knowledge you already have. It is a kind of skill and it improves with practice until it becomes almost automatic.

Mental energy

“Certainly, it means old people have to stir up some mental energy and , indeed, sometimes the memory network inside the brain physically breaks down to a certain degree.

“But memory functions in the same way as piano playing. If you don't use the skill for a long time it takes longer to respond. The elderly may not want to bother to make the effort.

“If we can help them understand how memory works and what they have to do to retain the skill, then this is very worthwhile work.

“There are no drugs that can help in this although there may be some day so for the time being we've got to structure adult learning and remembering situations so the older person's difficulties are minimized.”

Canada Council, among others, has concluded that Fergus Craik's work is worth remembering.


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