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As we get older memory "accentuates the positive"

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  • Ian Pitchford
    EMBARGO: NOT FOR RELEASE UNTIL 6:00 PM (EDT), JUNE 1, 2003 AS WE GET OLDER, MEMORY ACCENTUATES THE POSITIVE, HELPING EXPLAIN WHY AGING CAN FOSTER GOOD
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 1, 2003
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      EMBARGO: NOT FOR RELEASE UNTIL 6:00 PM (EDT), JUNE 1, 2003

      AS WE GET OLDER, MEMORY "ACCENTUATES THE POSITIVE,
      " HELPING EXPLAIN WHY AGING CAN FOSTER GOOD FEELINGS
      Younger Adults Find it Harder to Filter Out Negative Images

      WASHINGTON - Here's good news about aging: When it comes to remembering
      emotional images, we tend -- as we get older -- to do what the song said, and
      "accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative." Three California
      psychologists found that compared with younger adults, older adults recalled
      fewer negative than positive images. The memory bias favoring the recall of
      positive images increased in successively older age groups. The findings appear
      in the June issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, which is
      published by the American Psychological Association (APA).

      Psychologists have recently documented the tendency of older people to regulate
      their emotions more effectively than younger people, by maintaining positive
      feelings and lowering negative feelings. Researchers led by Susan Turk Charles,
      Ph.D., of the University of California, Irvine, wanted to understand how this
      happens -- and focused on the role of memory.

      Charles and her colleagues conducted two studies to examine age differences in
      memory for positive, negative and neutral images of people, animals, nature
      scenes and inanimate objects. For example, among the "people" pictures, a
      positive image showed a man and a young boy at the beach watching seagulls
      overhead; a negative image showed a couple looking sorrowful as they stand in a
      cemetery and stare down at a tombstone; and a neutral image showed scuba divers
      checking their gear by the side of a dock.

      In both experiments, the psychologists first showed participants the images.
      Next, they tested recall (how many they remembered) and recognition memory
      (whether they accurately picked what they saw from a larger group of images).

      The first study tested 144 participants in groups of ages 18-29, 41-53 and
      65-80. Older adults recalled fewer negative images relative to positive and
      neutral images. For the older adults, recognition memory also decreased for
      negative pictures. As a result, the younger adults remembered the negative
      pictures better.

      In a second study of 64 participants (divided equally between ages 19-30 and
      ages 63-86), the authors ruled out mood as a contributing factor, by testing
      participants for mood and depression before presenting the images. Mood
      affected younger and older people alike, ruling it out as the reason why -
      again -- the largest age-related differences in memory were for negative
      images.

      Although both younger and older adults spent more time viewing negative images,
      only the younger group recalled and recognized them better.

      The research supports the "socioemotional selectivity" theory that, as people
      get older and become more aware of more limited time left in life, they direct
      their attention to more positive thoughts, activities and memories. "With age,"
      write the authors, "people place increasingly more value on emotionally
      meaningful goals and thus invest more cognitive and behavioral resources in
      obtaining them."

      Physiology may aid the process. Dr. Mara Mather, an author of the article, and
      colleagues have done preliminary brain research suggesting that in older
      adults, the amygdala is activated equally to positive and negative images,
      whereas in younger adults, it is activated more to negative images. This
      suggests that older adults encode less information about negative images, which
      in turn would diminish recall.

      Article: "Aging and Emotional Memory: The Forgettable Nature of Negative Images
      for Older Adults," Susan Turk Charles, Ph.D., University of California, Irvine;
      Mara Mather, Ph.D., University of California, Santa Cruz; and Laura L.
      Carstensen, Ph.D., Stanford University; Journal of Experimental Psychology:
      General, Vol. 132. No. 2.

      Full text of the article is available from the APA Public Affairs Office and
      http://www.apa.org/journals/xge/press_releases/june_2003/xge1322310.html.

      Reporters: Susan Turk Charles can be reached by Email or by phone at (949)
      824-1450.

      The American Psychological Association (APA), in Washington, DC, is the largest
      scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United
      States and is the world's largest association of psychologists. APA's
      membership includes more than 150,000 researchers, educators, clinicians,
      consultants and students. Through its divisions in 53 subfields of psychology
      and affiliations with 60 state, territorial and Canadian provincial
      associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and
      as a means of promoting human welfare.

      http://www.apa.org/releases/aging_memory.html
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