Drivers have bad memories
José Pichel Andrés/DICYT The Recognised Research Group (Grupo de Investigación Reconocido, GIR) on Memory and Cognition of the Universidad of Salamanca has been studying for years different processes of the human memory, in particular the frequent distortions it suffers under normal conditions. One of these lines of research, which is being carried out in collaboration with experts from the United States, has led it to analyse what occurs when a person is driving a car. Experiments show that the efficiency of remembering the information received in this situation is very low.
“It has been shown that talking on the telephone is a problem when driving, not only because of using one's hands but also because of doing two things at the same time”, Ángel Fernández Ramos explains to DiCYT. He is a researcher of this group of the Faculty of Psychology who quotes the studies of David Strayer of the University of Utah. However, “we are interested in the opposite, not only that talking on the telephone is bad for driving, but also that driving is bad for remembering what you are talking about on the telephone”.
Apart from purely scientific interest, this matter has very relevant applications as “the main argument of many companies to encourage the use of the telephone in the car is that of increasing productivity and we are exposing this myth. Not only are you not more productive, you are more dangerous, so it's not worth it”.
In collaboration with researchers from the United States, who have sophisticated driving simulators in which the activity of the brain can be followed up by means of electroencephalography, the scientists from the University of Salamanca have designed a series of experiments that show that it is impossible to fix memories in the mind efficiently while one is driving.
For example, the participants were asked to follow a car in the simulator and at the same time to listen to a series of words that they are subsequently asked to remember. The result is that correct answers decrease and false memories increase significantly compared with other people who have heard the words without having to drive.
Keys to false memories
Apart from this line of research into driving, the team of Ángel Fernández Ramos has been working on false memories for a long time. “It is very easy to have someone remember something that he/she has neither heard nor read”, he affirms. Experimental psychology includes the carrying out of experiments to manipulate the variables influencing these distortions of the memory with the aim of understanding the reasons. “If we have a list of words including terms such as moon, stars, and darkness, by the association of ideas the subjects think that they also remember hearing the word night even if this is not true”, he explains.
Over the years the research group has carried out numerous tests of this kind with revealing results. Age is one of the keys that makes a difference. “Small children have more distorted memories because they are easily influenced and confuse fantasy and reality, but in some cases they make less mistakes because they lack the experience necessary for associating concepts”, the researcher comments. This type of research has interesting applications in certain fields, such as law courts, as it can influence to what extent the testimony of a child can be considered relevant.
The experiments also allow the analysis of the strategies that are used by the brain to remember. The number of errors decreases when the adult taking part in the experiment has been warned that an attempt will be made to deceive him and have him remember a word related to the list. This allows him to “mark to remember” and thus identify more easily that night was not among the words he heard. Children cannot do this. However, this type of mental monitoring tends to fail if the subject is pressurised by other circumstances such as very limited time in which to answer.
In the case of driving, “if we let them know that we are going to slip in a word to induce an error, their number of incorrect answers also drops, but they drive worse”, the scientist from the University of Salamanca points out. Drivers take longer to brake or show more lapses when making decisions such as selecting the correct exit if they try to carry out parallel memory-related tasks.
An aspect deriving from these studies has become another interesting field of study for this group, which is part of the University Institute for Integration in the Community (Instituto Universitario de Integración en la Comunidad, INICO) of the University of Salamanca: this is the construction of rules of association for words. A person is given a list of 250 terms and told to write the first word he/she relates to each of them; when the exercise is carried out by many subjects very strong statistical associations appear such as table and chair or letter and love. In this way it is scientifically confirmed in an empirical and quantitative manner that terms such as moon, stars, and darkness are related to night and to what extent.
The researchers have already constructed the rules of association for over 7,000 words in Spanish and are gradually making them available to the scientific community, as the applications of this knowledge are very numerous. “It can be studied whether in the case of Alzheimer's associative connections such as apple and Eve or semantic connections such as apple and pear disappear first”, he gives as an example.
Moreover, human beings establish many more connections with the words they learn the earliest, so another of the group's lines of research is analysing the age at which words are acquired. The oldest in our mind are more frequent in the language, are read more quickly, and produce more connections.