Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

Memorial Consequences of Imagination in Children and Adults

Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

Memorial Consequences of Imagination in Children and Adults

Article excerpt

Recent work with adults suggests that imagination can impair later recall of previously encoded events but can improve recall of subsequently encoded events. The present study examined the memorial consequences of imagination in children. Kindergartners, first and fourth graders, and young adults studied two successively presented lists of items. Between the two lists, participants were given an imagination task supposed to create a change in mental context. As expected, in adults, the imagination task impaired recall of the previously encoded material (List 1) and improved recall of the subsequently encoded material (List 2). In children, significant List 1 impairment was present from first grade on, but even fourth graders failed to show improvement for List 2. The results challenge a purely context-based explanation of the memorial costs and benefits of imagination. Instead, they suggest that the two effects are mediated by different mechanisms with different developmental trajectories.

Teachers often complain about young children's absent-mindedness during lessons. Indeed, in many situations at school, children may mentally drift away from the task at hand and engage in task-irrelevant thoughts and imagination. Leaving alone the fact that such behavior may make the teacher livid, recent research with adults suggests that imagination can have substantial effects on episodic memory (Klein, Shiffrin, & Criss, 2007; Pastötter & Bäuml, 2007; Sahakyan & Delaney, 2003; Sahakyan & Kelley, 2002). The present study is the first to examine this issue in children.

In their original study on the effect of imagination on episodic memory, Sahakyan and Kelley (2002) had participants learn two lists of unrelated items. After presentation of the first list, participants were given an imagination task: to mentally walk through their parents' home or to describe what they would do if they were invisible. After study of the second list and a retention interval, a recall test for the two lists was conducted. Relative to a no-imagination control condition, the imagination task impaired recall of List 1 (the costs of imagination), but improved recall of List 2 (the benefits of imagination). Imagination was thus found to have not only a detrimental but also a beneficial effect on memory performance, at least in young adults.

It has been suggested that the memorial consequences of imagination reflect a variant of context-dependent memory (Sahakyan & Kelley, 2002). The imagination task is assumed to cause a more than normal change in participants' mental context, so that the previously encoded material (List 1) and the subsequently encoded material (List 2) become connected to different contextual cues. In contrast, participants in the no-imagination condition are more likely to treat the two sets of materials as parts of the same event and thus connect them to the same mental context cue. The costs of imagination arise because, regarding List 1, the mismatch between the retrieval context and the learning context is larger in the imagination than in the no-imagination condition (Tulving & Thomson, 1973; for reviews of context-dependent memory, see Eich, 1989, or Smith & Vela, 2001). The benefits of imagination can be explained in terms of the same (context-change) mechanism. The context change should reduce proactive interference as a result of learning the two lists in different mental contexts and thus improve recall of List 2 (Sahakyan & Kelley, 2002).

More recent work, however, has indicated that the benefits of imagination may reflect a different, more strategic process. In fact, Sahakyan and Delaney (2003) reported evidence that participants in the imagination condition more often change their encoding strategy from more shallow processing of the previously encoded material (List 1) to deeper processing of the subsequently encoded material (List 2). Participants apparently use the change in mental context to evaluate prior learning and, in an attempt to improve memory for subsequent material, adopt a deeper encoding strategy for the second list. …

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