New study links memory and culture


Think back to your last birthday party — what do you remember? The decorations? The guests? The flavor of the cake?

Where you come from determines, in part, how you remember, according to a new study in the journal Culture and Brain, by Angela Gutchess, assistant professor of psychology. 

The paper was coauthored by Peter Miller, a research assistant, and former students Sarah Serbun, MS’09, and Akash Vadalia ’12.

Americans, for instance, tend to focus on primary, visual details — the color of the decorations or the type of icing on the cake. East Asians may better remember interpersonal details — who served the cake or whom they danced with.   

“Your culture influences what you perceive to be important around you,” Gutchess explains. “If your culture values social interactions, you will remember those interactions better than a culture that values individual perceptions. Culture really shapes your memory.”

To explore how the two are related, Gutchess and her team performed a series of memory tests on 64 students from the U.S. and East Asian countries, including China, Japan and Korea. 

Both sets of students scored similarly on general memory tests but American students showed more specific object recall. Gutchess showed both groups of students a series of images — a chair, a light, a desk. The next day, she showed them another series of objects in which some photographs were reprised from the previous series and some were just similar. 

The American students were better able to identify the duplicated pictures than their East Asian counterparts. 

In a second test, Gutchess explored whether the two cultural groups remembered more detailed scenes differently — an office, a kitchen, the savannah. Again, participants were shown two series of photos and asked to identify same and similar images. Again, Americans scored higher on identifying duplicated scenes and objects. 

This surprised Gutchess. 

“Previous studies had shown East Asians were better able to remember background and contextual details but this study showed that’s not always the case,” she says. “This may be because East Asian memory is more focused on emotional context and social detail than visual detail.”

Understanding how culture affects memory can improve interactions from diplomatic relations to classroom teaching styles, says Gutchess. Rote memorization may work for some cultures while a more context-based approach to learning may work better for others, Gutchess says. As universities become increasingly international, understanding how students from different countries learn and remember becomes more important.  

“If we can understand how we remember, we can begin to really understand one another better,” Gutchess says. 

Categories: Research, Science and Technology

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