There are scores of studies exploring the roots of dementia; why some folks get it and others don’t, and what lifestyle advice we can glean from this data.
Now here’s a new factor: Some of the latest research reveals that each of us have different memory styles, and these memory styles might impact our memory function as we age.
Let’s take a closer look at the science.
Episodic vs Semantic Memory
Do you know your memory style? It comes down to how you remember details.
For example, your spouse or friend remembers absolutely everything about that lovely café you visited together five years ago. They wax poetic about the crusty French bread, the aromas of garlic wafting from the kitchen and the taste of the delicious homemade pasta.
You — on the other hand — may recall the precise date of your visit, exact address, and maybe even the cost of the meal.
Scientists say that if your memory of an event is richly detailed (i.e. the feel of pasta in your mouth), then you have an “episodic” memory style. But those who mainly recall the facts of the event are said to have a “semantic” memory style.
Different Memory Styles, Different Areas of the Brain
Scientists from Rotman Research Institute at McGill University in Montreal studied people’s memory styles to determine what memory style means in terms of measurable brain activity.1
Scientists found that these different ways of recalling the past are linked with distinct brain connectivity patterns inherent to the person, suggesting a life-long memory trait.
The study’s lead author, Dr. Signy Sheldon, explains that we can think of episodic memory as a personality trait.
“People high in this style have a tendency to do mental time travel,” she says. “They can go back to past events and re-experience them in detail.”
She says that for decades, all memory and brain function research treated subjects the same, averaging across individuals.
“Yet as we know from experience and from comparing our recollection to others, peoples’ memory traits vary,” she states. “Our study shows that these memory traits correspond to stable differences in brain function, even when we are not asking people to perform memory tasks while in the scanner.”
In the study, 66 healthy young adults (average age 24) filled out an online questionnaire describing their recollection of facts and events from their own lives.
Their responses ranged between those with superior memory to those with severely deficient memory.
After completing the online survey, the participants’ brains were scanned with something called “resting state functional magnetic resonance imaging.” This sophisticated MRI-type scanner maps patterns of brain connectivity.
Researchers focused on the connections between the brain’s medial temporal lobes, which are greatly involved in memory. The participants with episodic (richly detailed) memories had a higher connectivity to regions of the brain involved in visual processes.
Conversely, those with semantic (factual) memories showed a higher medial temporal lobe connectivity to areas of the brain involved in organization and reasoning.
Your Dementia Risk and Your Memory Style
Is one memory style inherently better than the other when it comes to your brain function? Not necessarily, say scientists.
Marc Coutanche, an assistant professor of psychology and a research scientist at the Learning Research and Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh, weighed in on the question.2
He says although rich in detail, episodic memory is not necessarily superior. For instance, people with semantic memory can recall sports statistics like nobody’s business!
Dr. Brian Levine, a senior scientist at Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute, discussed the findings in a university press release.3
He notes that with aging and dementia, one of the first things folks notice is how it’s increasingly difficult to recall details of events.
“Yet no one has looked at how this relates to memory traits,” he states. “People who are used to retrieving richly-detailed memories may be very sensitive to subtle memory changes as they age, whereas those who rely on a factual approach may prove to be more resistant to such changes.”
Researchers are eager to continue study in this area. Could certain memory traits be protective, delaying age-related decline? And could a person’s unique memory traits help direct treatment for memory loss in later life?
I look forward to following this new trend in cognitive research to see what the future holds. I’ll keep you posted.
- DOI: 10.1016/j.cortex.2015.11.005