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Adaptive Memory

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Memory is one of the intriguing topics to study in cognitive psychology; it is something we rely on for our daily activities i.e. we use memory remember/recollect information relevant to our day to day activities.

Whereas there are traditional approaches to study memory by conducting researches on the framework of levels of processing model and so on. This study has tried to investigate factors of memory from an evolutionary point of view. According to the adaptive memory concept, memory systems are tuned to retain information having survival fitness value. A crucial feature of adaptive memory is that the notion memory has evolved (over the period of time) to increase survival by better retaining information having fitness value. In the recent years, James S Nairne-et-al. research on adaptive memory has interested a lot of other researchers of evolutionary psychology to study this topic. Nairne and colleagues conducted a series of experiment to test the phenomenon of adaptive memory.

Central to the school of thought in human memory research is the assumption that human memory systems are functionally designed and like other biological systems, memory is likely evolved to enhance fitness (survival and reproduction). Thinking about the relevance of information to a survival situation produces excellent long-term retention. A few seconds of survival processing produces better free recall than virtually all other known memory-enhancement techniques. Memory is essential to adaptive behavior because it allows past experience to guide choices.

In the experiment conducted by Narine-et-al., participants are asked to imagine that they’re a part of a small tribe living in grassland of a foreign land. They’re asked to gather or hunt food items in order to help their and their tribes’ survival. Next a list of words are presented, and participants are asked to rate the relevance of each word to the imagined scenario. In a later surprise memory test, participants typically remember the words rated for relevance to this fitness-relevant scenario better than they remember words that are not fitness relevant (to the scenario).

This can be explained through the theory of natural selection. Human memory is evolved because it enhanced survival and fitness in environments that were present during the extended period of human evolution. Anderson & Schooler (1991, 2000) suggested that certain mnemonic characteristics, such as the general form of the retention function, mimic the way events tend to occur and recur in the environment. It has been suggested that sex differences in spatial abilities, including a memory for object locations, may have an evolutionary basis. Silverman & Eals (1992) suggested that the division of labor typically found in hunter-gatherer societies-men hunt and women gather-may have led to unique foraging-related cognitive specializations of the sexes. Men generally outperform women on tasks thought to be related to hunting skills (e.g. navigation and orientation), whereas women often show an advantage on tasks requiring memory for objects stored in fixed locales.

The experiment conducted is based on the study done by Narine-et-al. (2009), here the participants are randomly divided into three groups; hunter, gatherer, and scavenger. Participants in the experiments were asked to rate the relevance of words to scenarios that were specifically designed to mimic prototypical hunting and gathering activities. Following the rating task, participants received a surprise recall test on the rated words. Participants always rated the relevance of the target words to hunting or to gathering food, but under conditions that were either fitness relevant or not. The purpose of this study was to learn whether or not memory systems have evolved to better retain information related to fitness-survival value.

Rationale: According to past studies (Narine, Klein, Cosmides, Tooby & Chance,2002) suggest that human memory systems are “tuned” to remember information that is processed in terms of fitness value. Hence it is predicted that when a person is asked to rate the relevance of words to a survival scenario the performance is better on recall scores.

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