Memory Can Be Child's Play

Given the right cues, youngsters have better recall, finds study

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HealthDay Reporter

TUESDAY, July 27, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- If you need to remember to pick up milk on the way home tonight, you'd better ask your child to remind you.

That's because youngsters may have a better memory than adults do, a new study says -- at least for certain tasks, anyway.

The study, which appears in August issue of Psychological Science, found that in one experiment children could accurately recall which pictures they had previously seen 31 percent of the time, while young adults only managed a paltry 7 percent accuracy rate.

The reason for the poor adult showing, said study author Vladimir Sloutsky, director of the Center for Cognitive Science at Ohio State University, is that adults filter out information they deem unnecessary. Later, if they're asked to recall this information, they can't because they never committed it to memory.

"It seems like children have a better memory because they have less knowledge. Knowledge makes memory more efficient, but it may make it more selective and less accurate," he said.

"Memory functions in a very efficient way, and people pay attention to what's important. If you start paying attention and try to remember everything, you'll lose your competitive edge," he explained.

Sloutsky, along with graduate student Anna Fisher, tested 77 children with an average age of 5 and 71 college students with an average age of 19.

In the first experiment, all of the volunteers were shown 30 pictures of cats, birds and bears. First, however, volunteers were shown a picture of a cat and were told the cat had "beta cells." No explanation or further information was given about beta cells. As they were shown the 30 pictures, the researchers asked whether or not they believed the animal had beta cells.

Because the volunteers knew that one cat had beta cells, they could use "inductive inferencing" to conclude that other cats also had beta cells. This process is known as induction, according to Sloutsky. And there are two ways that people learn by induction, either by general category or by similarities.

When the study volunteers were then shown 28 pictures and then asked whether it was new or from the original set, the children far outperformed the adults -- 31 percent to 7 percent. That's because children use similarity-based induction, while adults use category-based induction, said Sloutsky.

In using similarity-based induction, the children had to study many details of each animal to see if it was similar to the cat, while adults quickly realized if the animal fit the cat category and moved on to the next picture.

This experiment also included a control group for comparison, and this group wasn't told about beta cells at all. They were simply asked to remember the animals for a recognition test. Without the inductive reasoning task, the adults fared much better, scoring 42 percent to the children's 27 percent.

In another experiment, the researchers taught the children how to use category-based induction like adults. When the children used categories rather than similarities for induction, however, their performance dropped to the level of adults.

"This is an interesting study that shows how children inherently learn differently," said Dr. David Salsberg, supervisor of pediatric psychology at the Rusk Institute at New York University Medical Center.

"As you develop and become older, you have to be more effective and selective about what you're paying attention to. You just can't hold on to everything in memory," he explained, adding, "adults have developed ways to learn more efficiently and to categorize what they're seeing."

He said this information may be helpful for researchers and for educators.

Parents, Salsberg said, should know that this is yet another study that shows "from very early on, children are mature, capable learners in multiple ways and that they have a lot of potential."

More information

For tips on enhancing memories, or to test out your memory skills, visit the Memory Page.

SOURCES: Vladimir Sloutsky, Ph.D., professor and director, Center for Cognitive Science, Ohio State University, Columbus; David H. Salsberg, Psy.D., supervisor, pediatric psychology, Rusk Institute, New York University Medical Center, New York City; August 2004 Psychological Science

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