How Facebook Improves Memory

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Checking status updates on Facebook may be just the distraction your memory needs.

Facebook and other social media are generally considered distractions, rather than aids, to building memory. Interrupting whatever you’re doing to check your status or watch that cute cat video seems unlikely to help you retain the information you need, particularly for older people whose attention can be more fragmented.

But new research suggests that certain kinds of distractions can actually help memory among the elderly — and that Facebook itself may also enhance recall.

Renée Biss of the University of Toronto explored the surprising fact that when older adults are distracted from a task, they unknowingly retain more irrelevant information than younger people do. To determine whether this tendency could be tweaked to improve memory for important information, she and her colleagues designed a recall experiment designed to distract participants from remembering what they had seen.

The research, published in the journal Psychological Science, involved more than 200 older adults with an average age of 67 or 68 and younger adults who were 19 to 20 years old on average, in Canada. In a series of experiments, participants tried to memorize a list of 20 words and were tested on them almost immediately afterward. Then they were told that there would be a second surprise test 15 minutes later.

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During those 15 minutes, they were shown line drawings on a computer screen and asked to push a button when the most recent picture was exactly the same as the preceding drawing. Some of the drawings had some of the words from the list on them, while others had nonsense words: participants were told to ignore the words and simply identify the matching pictures. Only 10 of the words from the list were repeated so that researchers could determine if recall for these words was better than for those that were not included.

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Not surprisingly, the young adults performed better overall on the word-recall task. But the older participants remembered as many of the words that were randomly interspersed with the drawings as the younger participants did. This same recall wasn’t seen with the words that were not included in the drawings. “With the boost provided by repetition of studied items as distractors, the older adults’ final recall of repeated items did not differ from that of young adults,” the authors write.

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The results suggest that the aging brain may use different recall mechanisms than the younger one and may benefit from repetition, even if that repetition is in the form of distracting or competing events. “The dramatic and consistent finding across these experiments is that repeatedly presenting items as non-target information — that is, as distraction — minimizes and even eliminates age-related forgetting,” the researchers write. “It may be fruitful for researchers and clinicians to instead work with older adults’ natural patterns of cognition — in particular, their tendency to process both relevant and irrelevant information — to improve memory rather than try to make older adults think and remember like younger adults do.”

Social media, which so many people rely on to distract their attention, may be one potential way to test this strategy, by embedding important information that elderly people need to remember, such as appointments or medication schedules, in the context of Facebook updates and other messages that they scroll through regularly.

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That idea may not be as far-fetched as it seems. In preliminary work presented at the International Neuropsychological Society’s annual meeting in Hawaii, researchers discussed intriguing data on how Facebook can improve cognitive function in older people.

In that study, which included 42 adults ages 68 to 91, the 14 who were trained on Facebook improved their cognitive performance by 25%, compared with participants who were placed on a wait list for the training and a third group that was taught to use an online private diary program. The tests measured participants’ ability to update their memory by discarding prior information that was no longer useful.

These results complement other work that suggests that Facebook content itself is more memorable — perhaps because of the socially driven cues to the content and the connection that people have with the information that is posted, not to mention the conversational, gossipy tone of the messages. Maybe spending so much time on social media has some benefits after all.