Thursday 20 August 2015

Collaborative Memory: Interview with John Sutton

I interviewed John Sutton, who is Professor of Cognitive Science at the ARC Centre for Excellence in Cognition and its Disorders at Macquarie University, Sydney. John is interested in memory, skill, and distributed cognition, and in his work he seeks to integrate philosophical, psychological, and historical ideas and methods. This is the third in a series of three posts, you can read the first (on distorted memory) here and the second (on observer memory) here.

ES-B: Often old age is associated with memory impairments, but in your research you seem to have found advantages in remembering in old age, especially when the act of remembering is done collectively (e.g., with a spouse). How did you think about collective remembering to start with, and how do you think your research can contribute to changing preconceived ideas about memory?

JS: This is work I have been doing with Amanda Barnier and Celia Harris. We have looked at couples who have been together for forty or fifty years. These are people whose ability to work together really matters to them, and perhaps the way that they encode new information and manage the challenges of accessing information when they need it might also be something that they have had some success with over time. This is something that happens with relationships at all ages, a cognitive division of labour. What we are interested in are cases in which that division of labour works well and is applied specifically to remembering your past together. 

We have found some evidence to temper the prevailing pessimism about memory in old age. In general, results suggest that any decline in older people’s memory is most pronounced when remembering their own past experiences. In contrast their semantic memory tends to be better, bigger: this is why we think of older people as wise. They know a lot of stuff, but they often have trouble remembering perceptual details, remembering the vivid moment-by-moment sequences of a particular event, or at least they are slower in doing so and maybe do not care so much in getting the details right. 

But we have found that when older couples work together both at relatively boring tasks like remembering a word list together, and also remembering events from their honeymoon, or some important holiday they took together, they will tend to do better when they are working together compared to when they are working alone. Maybe that is not too surprising from a common sense point of view, but it is actually quite rare in the scientific work on memory. In general, when people work together on memory tasks they do not do as well as if you had just let them do it on their own and then pooled the results.

ES-B: By working together you do not mean simply doing the task separately and then bringing the results together, you mean using each other as cues?

JS: Yes, exactly, I mean working together in an interactive way. In the case of couples we have the same couple one week doing the memory task separately, and then we add it up ourselves to give them a total score for each task, but then the next week they come back and do the task collaboratively. When remembering their holidays they usually have a lot of fun, and that emotional component is an important part of why they do better, because they enjoy thinking about it, and so they get extra episodic details in that way.

ES-B: Why would being intimate with somebody increase the good results you get in collaborative memory studies?

Credit: Wellcome Library London

JS: One question about the work with older couples is what is going on? Is it just that they get on very well? Or is it just that they have had this history together? By working with younger couples we are starting to test that. If you have got a really intensely intimate young couple but they have only had six months together, are they just as good as people who have lived together for sixty years? What are the important ingredients? 

We have been able to analyse the transcripts of the conversations between our participants and try to work out what predicts which couples are good at remembering together and what predicts which couples are not so good at remembering together. And there are a couple of very specific findings which were quite surprising to us. One is that when older couples correct each other that is actually a bad sign. If one participant is in the middle of a story about something that happened and the partner pitches in and says ‘oh no that was on a Thursday’ that actually correlates with that couple not doing that well.

ES-B: Do they do less well after the correction or less well overall?

JS: Overall. So the point is, for the couples where there are more corrections in the entire set of tasks, their results will be less good. We are not able to make a causal claim about that, maybe it is a symptom of something else that is stopping the collaboration working well. The positive factors which go with people who seem to do better on these tasks are: (1) having a strategy, so for example they might say ‘I am probably going to be able to remember everything that happened up to the day I broke my ankle and then you are going to need to really help me’, (2) offering cues, so saying ‘I am not sure, I am not saying this is it, but was it that the musical we saw had a naval theme?’ So you are just throwing stuff out, and it does not matter if those cues actually lead to anything, but couples who offer more speculative information end up doing better. One last thing about correction: what I said about couples who correct doing less well, we found the reverse with siblings, siblings do better at the memory tasks if they actively correct each other all the time, and I think that is a great result.

ES-B: Why would that be?

JS: My speculation is that if we are siblings it is not like we can ever not be siblings. Even if I am a bit rude to you and you are a bit rude to me, we are trying to get at the truth here so let us get it right. Whereas in romantic relationships it is much more emotionally challenging for someone to correct you.

ES-B: So the intimacy of couples almost acts as a block if you are trying to find out about memory, and then because you have got that emotionally charging stuff, it might be better to test siblings, because if you are right you are going to get more accurate results from siblings.

JS: I think that is probably true. Which suggests we should also work with older siblings, with siblings who are in their 70s and 80s actually. That is a great idea! Because it would predict that you are going to get more accurate results. But with older people, who have such a rich shared history, the point of remembering together is not just about accuracy: memory has all kinds of other functions relating to identity and relationship. This is why it has been great for us to work with older couples who just enjoy talking about the past together. And as you suggest, this has been really generative for us in research terms for highlighting further questions to follow up.

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