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Forget me not

For adults, memories tend to fade with time.

But a study has shown that there are circumstances under which the opposite is true for small children — who remember a piece of information better days later than they can on the day they first learned it. They are able to make complex associations — they just need more time to do it.

The study, led by Vladimir Sloutsky, professor of psychology at The Ohio State University and published in the journal Psychological Science, is the first to document two different but related cognitive phenomena simultaneously:

  • so-called “extreme forgetting,” when kids learn two similar things in rapid succession, and the second thing causes them to forget the first; and
  • delayed remembering, when they can recall the previously forgotten information days later.

The findings provide insights to understanding memory and, in particular, the issue of encoding new information into memory.

“First, we show that if children are given pieces of similar information in close proximity, the different pieces interfere with each other, and there is almost complete elimination of memory,” said Sloutsky, who also serves as director of the university’s Cognitive Development Lab. “Second, we show that introducing delays eliminates this interference.”

“It seems surprising that children can almost completely forget what they just learned, but then their memories can actually improve with time,” said Kevin Darby, a doctoral student in psychology at The Ohio State University and co-author of the study."

Game of associations

The study involved 82 4- and 5-year-olds from central Ohio preschools. The kids played a picture association game on a computer three separate times.

The first time, they were shown pairs of objects, such as a baseball cap and a rabbit, and told whether the pairs belonged to Mickey Mouse or Winnie the Pooh. To win the game, they had to match the pairs with the correct owner.

Kids learned the associations fairly easily. At the start of the game, they were scoring an average of 60 percent, but by the end of the game their average scores had risen to around 90 percent.

The kids then played the game again immediately after, with the pairs belonging to Mickey and Pooh scrambled, so that the kids had to learn a completely new set of associations with the exact same objects.

Again, the kids started out scoring around 60 percent, and ended around 90 percent. The scores proved they were able to learn the new picture associations.

To test whether learning the new associations in the second game caused the kids to forget what they had learned in the first game, half of the kids played one more time the same day with the original pairs of associations.

The kids did indeed experience extreme forgetting. They began the third game scoring around 60 percent, and ended scoring around 90 percent — as if they were learning the same information all over again from scratch.

The other half of the kids didn’t play the third game until two days later. With time to absorb the information, they did better. A lot better, actually.

Kids who had a two-day break began the game with an average score of nearly 85 percent, and finished with a score just above 90 percent. Their final scores were similar, but the second group of children remembered enough to start out with a 25-point advantage over kids who didn’t get a two-day break.

For kids, learning the pair associations is analogous to learning things like rules, schedules or arrangements.

For example, a child may have to remember that on Saturdays she can use the scooter and her brother plays video games, but on Sunday she plays video games and her brother uses the scooter.

The study suggests that kids may have difficulty remembering such things in the moment. But given a few days to absorb the new information, they can remember it later.

The takeaway: Kids can experience extreme forgetting, and the counterintuitive way to fight it is to let time pass.