Repeat After Me
Page 4 of 5

Young children are not the only ones who may have malleable memories. In the 1980s, a form of psychoanalysis called recovered-memory therapy flourished as a way to help patients remember past abuse or trauma. Since then, the practice has been challenged by a series of studies that indicate some people, especially those with vivid imaginations, are prone to false memories of early childhood incidents.

Even loaded words can change the interpretation of a memory. Pillemer tells of a study that asked witnesses to an accident to speculate how fast a car was going. When asked, "How fast was the car going when it smashed into the other car?" the estimate was considerably greater than when asked, "How fast was the car traveling when it collided with the other car?"

Pillemer "Women might be better wired for episodic memory, and men better wired for general memory."
—David Pillemer, the Dr. Samuel E. Paul Professor of Developmental Psychology

Parents tend to have more elaborate conversations about memories with daughters than sons, according to Pillemer. This, he and Leichtman say, might be part of the reason girls tend to be more elaborative and to tell more autobiographical-event stories.

A few years ago, Leichtman equipped several teenagers with tape recorders to capture their day-to-day conversations and then analyzed them for content. "Girls had a dramatically greater incidence of referring to past events, and they did so in a more elaborative and dramatic way than the boys," she reports. Pillemer notes that there has been some preliminary neuroimaging that indicates women "might be better wired for episodic memory and men better wired for general memory."

A current focus of Leichtman's and Pillemer's research is the puzzling question of why, beginning in middle school, boys tend to do better in math and science courses than girls. Research indicates that a lot of learning—grade school through college—is cued by personal-event memory. For instance, in one study, a second-grader was asked how she had remembered on a test that a thermometer contained mercury. "I remembered that Mr. B asked what's in a thermometer," she said, "and Tony put up his hand and said it was mercury... I thought Tony had to be wrong. I thought mercury was just a planet.'"

In addition, when students use episodic memory—remembering information in the context of a particular event—to get the right answer on a test, the answer is still remembered six months after the test, even if the original episode is not, Pillemer said. He adds that one large-scale study showed girls do better in chemistry when there are more laboratory sessions, while an increase in the number of labs did not affect the overall course performance of boys.

Pillemer and Leichtman have proposed a large study on the effect of narrative teaching techniques in math and science classes. They think girls may be turned off by a strict focus on abstractions, formulas and procedures. "It feels alien to them," says Pillemer. "Anecdotally, male principals we've talked with are skeptical, but female principals have understood, saying, 'Yes, that's what girls want to do, tell their own stories.' The women see this as a possible solution to keeping girls engaged in math and science."

Another current focus of Pillemer's research has been the relation of memory and self-esteem. In a series of studies, his research team asked people to describe specific episodes at different times in their lives that made them feel especially good and especially bad about themselves. They found that the negative episodes usually involved interpersonal relations, such as letting down a friend, teasing someone or not sharing. Positive events, on the other hand, usually involved achievement, such as scoring high on a test, learning a skill or getting a job promotion.

He explains the pattern by noting that not belonging—feeling isolated or alone—is a basic human fear. "But once you belong, there's no inherent need to have even more friends." On the other hand, there's a complementary need to achieve, to get ahead to be masterful. This finding, he thinks, could have practical application in parenting and school counseling. He illustrates with a story: "My daughter was very social through her sophomore year in high school. But in her junior year she became very studious, and not nearly as social. I asked her how she could make that shift and she told me that she had a baseline of friends she knew she could count on and that allowed her to do 'the achievement thing.'"

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