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One Act of Remembering Can Influence Future Acts

Update Date: Jul 30, 2012 07:52 AM EDT
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A recent study published on the journal Science states that remembering something old or noticing something new can bias how a person processes subsequent information.

Can the simple act of recognizing a face as you walk down the street change the way we think? Or can taking the time to notice something new on our way to work change what we remember about that walk? The answer is Yes. Researchers from New Your University found, through an analysis, that recalling old memories of recognizing something from the past affects a person's way of perceiving other subsequent information.

The researchers conducted an experiment in which participants rapidly switched between encoding novel objects and retrieving recently presented ones. The researchers hypothesized that processing the novel objects would bias participants' memory systems towards pattern separation while processing the old ones would evoke pattern completion biases.

The researchers found that participants' ability to notice the new details and correctly label those stimuli as 'similar' depended on what they did on the previous trial. Specifically, if they encountered a new stimulus on the preceding trial, participants were more likely to notice the similar trials were similar, but not old, items.

"We've all had the experience of seeing an unexpected familiar face as we walk down the street and much work has been done to understand how it is that we can come to recognize these unexpected events," said Lila Davachi, an associate professor in NYU's Department of Psychology and the study's senior author. "However, what has never been appreciated is that simply seeing that face can have a substantial impact on your future state of mind and can allow you, for example, to notice the new café that just opened on the corner or the new flowers in the garden down the street."

"We spend most of our time surrounded by familiar people, places, and objects, each of which has the potential to cue memories," added Katherine Duncan, the study's first author who was an NYU doctoral student at the time of the study and is now a postdoctoral researcher at Columbia University. "So why does the same building sometimes trigger nostalgic reflection but other times can be passed without notice? Our findings suggest that one factor maybe whether your memory system has recently retrieved other, even unrelated, memories or if it was engaged in laying down new ones."

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