An Australian Research Council grant to Professors Simon Dennis and Andrew Heathcote from the University of Newcastle, along with Prof. Vladimir Sloutsky from the Ohio-State University, will support research exploring fundamental questions about human memory. The grant is largest given for Psychology or Cognitive Science in the 2014 round.
Suppose you are at a party, and you notice someone across the room who strikes you as familiar. You know the person, but you’re not sure how. What is this person’s name? What is his or her job? On what occasion did the two of you meet? This situation illustrates the different ways in which we remember experiences. The feeling of familiarity you might receive when you see someone you’ve met before is recognition memory. Our ability to remember associated details of a person or an object is referred to as cued recall. Similarly, our ability to remember the occasion on which you were introduced to the person, is referred to as source memory.
Each of these forms of memory have been studied in great detail, but mostly in isolation. The grant will develop something that is lacking in the research on human memory, a comprehensive theory that unifies these different types of memory. A unified theory is essential to answer questions about how these forms of remembering relate to each other. For example, what causes us to forget a person’s occupation, but still recognize her or his face? If we can remember the context in which we’ve met a person, are we better able to remember their names?
The theory will also address fundamental question about how different aspects of memory change as we develop from children to adults. Children’s recognition memory abilities are quite similar to adults, but that they are poorer at remembering source information and associated details. What is responsible for the improvement in source memory and cued recall as we age? The grant will test the proposition that young children are just as able to encode the separate aspects of experience as adults, but that they are less able to bind them together.
The grant will extend the COCO (Context Occurrence and Co-Occurrence), a computational model recently developed by Adam Osth, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Newcastle, and Prof. Dennis. COCO describes memory as a collection of bindings between three components of an experience: the object of attention, the context or source of the object, and an associated object of attention. For instance, a memory of meeting a person at a party might be learned as a binding between the person’s face (object of attention), the party itself (the context), along with their name (the association).