Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Picturing Survival Memories: Enhanced Memory after Fitness-Relevant Processing Occurs for Verbal and Visual Stimuli

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Picturing Survival Memories: Enhanced Memory after Fitness-Relevant Processing Occurs for Verbal and Visual Stimuli

Article excerpt

Recent studies have shown that processing words according to a survival scenario leads to superior retention relative to control conditions. Here, we examined whether a survival recall advantage could be elicited by using pictures. Furthermore, in Experiment 1, we were interested in whether survival processing also results in improved memory for details. Undergraduates rated the relevance of pictures in a survival, moving, or pleasantness scenario and were subsequently given a surprise free recall test. We found that survival processing yielded superior retention. We also found that distortions occurred more often in the survival condition than in the pleasantness condition. In Experiment 2, we directly compared the survival recall effect between pictures and words. A comparable survival recall advantage was found for pictures and words. The present findings support the idea that memory is enhanced by processing information in terms of fitness value, yet at the same time, the present results suggest that this may increase the risk for memory distortions.

Memory phenomena are often explained by focusing on all-purpose proximate mechanisms (Nairne, 2005). That is, researchers often use a set of general principles to explain memory phenomena (e.g., elaboration leads to detailed memories). However, it is very likely that memory has evolved to reflect specific selection pressures that were present in our ancestral past. Researchers (see Nairne & Pandeirada, 2008a, 2008b) have recently begun to explore such a functionalist approach into the field of memory phenomena, and they have found startling new insights. For example, Nairne, Thompson, and Pandeirada (2007) examined whether processing information relevant for survival leads to retention superior to that for processing information in nonsurvival conditions (i.e., moving to a foreign country, pleasantness, and personal relevance). Specifically, they instructed participants to imagine a scenario in which they were stranded in the grasslands of a foreign land without any basic necessities and in danger of predators. Next, the participants had to rate words for their relevance to the scenario. The participants recalled significantly more words in the survival scenario than in control scenarios, demonstrating that survival processing leads to improved memory performance.

In further research, it was found that the survival recall advantage persisted when control conditions were used that equated the survival scenario in terms of arousal, novelty, media exposure (Kang, McDermott, & Cohen, 2008), and schematic processing (Weinstein, Bugg, & Roediger, 2008), but also when scenarios were designed that presumed to tap ancestral priorities, such as hunting and gathering activities (Nairne, Pandeirada, Gregory, & Van Arsdall, 2009). These studies provide compelling evidence that survival processing results in improved retention, yet research into this area remains relatively scarce.

The above-mentioned studies were predominantly focused on the recall of words by a comparison of the survival scenario with matched-appropriate control conditions. One unexplored issue is whether the survival recall advantage also holds for other classes of stimuli, such as pictures. It is widely recognized that information is more likely to be recollected when it is presented in pictures rather than in words (Paivio, 1971; Rajaram, 1996). This issue is particularly interesting in terms of adaptive memory, since processing pictures (i.e., imagery) preceded the processing of language (e.g., words) in the evolution of human memory (Paivio, 2007). Thus, if memory has evolved to favor processing fitness-relevant information, it seems likely that rich visual stimuli (e.g., pictures) would benefit from survival processing. Clearly, examining this issue would advance our knowledge regarding the robustness of the survival recall advantage.

Our purpose in the present study was to examine whether the survival recall advantage could be elicited using pictorial stimuli. …

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