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Imagining actions: a scientific hack for failing memories


Imagining an action that connects two objects may help elderly people overcome certain kinds of memory problems.


An elderly man doing woodwork.
Imagining actions that connect objects can help memory in elderly people.
Kelvin Murray / Getty

Imagining a type of action linking two objects may help elderly people overcome some types of memory deficit, according to research conducted by researchers at the Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care in Toronto, Canada.

In a paper published in the journal Memory & Cognition, a team of researchers led by Jennifer Ryan suggests that establishing an “action-consequence relationship” between two objects can boost the likelihood of both being deployed in optimum circumstances.

To explain, she uses the example of remembering to take an umbrella when going out and rain is forecast. In order to decrease the chances of simply leaving the brolly in the hallway, she suggests consciously imagining the tip of the umbrella jammed in the door lock.

In order to resolve the imagined situation, an (equally imaged) action must be taken – the umbrella must somehow be freed from the lock if the door is to be successful closed.

Doing this mental exercise, she writes, increases the likelihood that both the door and the umbrella will feature in a person’s thinking before leaving the house.

To test the idea, Ryan enrolled 88 healthy elderly people – aged 61 to 88 – and trained them to associate one object with another, a form of memory-building known as “unitization”.

Completing memory tasks before and after the training, older adults who had been taught to associate the objects by creating the thought of an action linking them together recorded the greatest levels of improvement.

“Previous research has shown that imagining two objects fusing into one will help people work around these memory deficits; but our work demonstrated that understanding the relationship between the two items is also important," says Ryan.

“We know that cognitive function is impaired during aging and this strategy could be one workaround for minor memory problems, depending on what you need to achieve.”

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Andrew Masterson is news editor of Cosmos.
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