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Imagine that


If you need to remember a set of objects, you may do better if you visualize a scene involving all of them. That helpful hint is backed up by science at Skidmore, where psychol- ogy professor Mary Ann Foley has been studying memory processes for decades.


“I have always been fascinated by the inte- rior life of the mind,” says Foley, who became curious about memory and imagination as a teenager ob- serving her little sister’s rich experience with imaginary friends. Much of Foley’s professional scholar- ship in cognitive psychology has focused on children—particularly the extent to which they can distin- guish between the sources of their memo- ry (what they thought and what they saw, or what they heard and what they did). But her recent work has exam- ined memory accuracy in college-age adults, supported by a three- year National Science Foundation grant that’s been extended for another year. There has been


know it can be fairly easy to induce such mistakes.


ERRORS ARE


GREATLY REDUCED WHEN THE PARTICIPANTS FREELY GENERATE THEIR


OWN SCENARIO, AS OPPOSED TO HAVING ONE PRESENTED BY THE EXPERIMENTER.


considerable memory research using im- agery, or visualizing in the mind’s eye. Ask participants to re- member a list of relat- ed objects—say, mug, saucer, tea, coaster, lid, coffee, straw, soup —and they may later “remember” that cup was on the list too, though it was not. It can help to imagine seeing the objects in a scenario: a table set with a mug of tea resting on a coaster, and so on. But still there can be memory confusion, and researchers


6 SCOPE WINTER 2014


PSYCHOLOGIST MARY ANN FOLEY STUDIES THE RISK AND VALUE OF GUIDED-IMAGERY EXERCISES FOR IMPROVING MEMORY ACCURACY.


Foley wanted to probe further: Was the act of visualization itself the culprit? Or could the source of the imagined scenario (the experimenter or the participant) also affect the error rates? She says, “It’s impor- tant to pay attention to what researchers mean by ‘guided im- agery,’ and to what extent the person generating the image has some freedom to visualize.” Indeed she and her team have shown that errors are greatly reduced when the participants freely generate their own scenario as opposed to having one pre- sented by the experi- menter. Having ex- plored these effects in terms of remember- ing information, her lab is now looking at memory for conversa-


tions and life events.


Foley admits all her research in this area hasn’t necessarily sharpened her own memory, but she says it has made her “a more tolerant person. I can un- derstand at least where some arguments


come from—when people misremember what others said or claim they said, it may be because they’re honestly con- fused.” In fact, work like Foley’s could have implications in educational, clini- cal, and legal contexts. Many psycholo- gists, for example, caution against the use of guided imagery in therapy, ex- pressing concerns that the visualization may result in memory confusions about life experiences. Although the warnings may be well founded in some circum- stances, research in this field might one day help fine-tune these techniques by inviting closer attention to the poten- tial influence of their social interactive components. Foley’s grant has funded a full-time


postdoctoral researcher and helped dozens of Skidmore students to take part in every aspect of her work—from test- ing participants to running statistical analyses to writing articles and present- ing at conferences. Foley hopes her stu- dents come away with “a good sense of how the research process is collabora- tive, and how we establish networking relationships that may endure beyond their years on campus.” For her, she says, the NSF’s “great gift” was that “it has allowed me to focus, in more in- tense ways over a short period of time, on what I value most about my profes- sional life—doing research on memory and mentoring those who may join the next generation of scientists.” —KG


ERIC JENKS ’08


HAL MAYFORTH ’75


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