A new study that looked to compare how working memory differs in young and old people, found that young people are able to retrieve memories in ‘high definition’. However, it’s not the case that young people necessarily remember more than older ones, the researchers at Vanderbilt University who made the study add. It’s just that the younger generations store and retrieve memories at a higher resolution

Philip Ko of Vanderbilt, along with colleagues, focused on studying visual working memory – the temporary storage of visual information, in the absence of visual cues per se. For the study, 11 older adults of around 67 years of age and 13 younger adults of approximately 23 years of age were recruited and ask to perform a the ‘visual challenge detection’ test while an electroencephalogram was strapped to their scalps.

This task consisted of viewing two, three or four colored dots and memorizing their appearance. The dots eventually disappeared, then shortly after a new dot appeared which was of the same or different colour. The participants had to signal whether a change in colour was present or not, and the accuracy of the response determined their ‘behavioral measure’.

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This behavioral measure indicates that young people at better at memorizing items than older people. The collected electroencephalographic data, however, suggests that the neural measure of memory capacity was very similar in both groups. In other words, during the maintenance stage, both generations were just as good at storing the same number of items.

The researchers suggest, however, that older adults store the items at a lower resolution than younger adults, resulting in impaired recollection. The HD memory recollection in younger adults may be due to perceptual implicit memory, a different kind of visual memory.

“We don’t know why older adults perform poorly when their neural activity suggests their memory capacity is intact, but we have two leads,” Ko said. “First, further analysis of this current dataset and other studies from our laboratory suggest that older adults retrieve memories differently than younger adults. Second, there is emerging evidence from other labs suggesting that the quality of older adults’ memories is poorer than younger adults. In other words, while older adults might store the same number of items, their memory of each item is ‘fuzzier’ than that of younger adults.”

Findings were reported in a paper published in the journal Attention, Perception & Psychophysics.