Memory overload? That's when the eyes step in eyes

March 1, 2018, Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care
Dr. Jennifer Ryan, senior scientist at Baycrest's Rotman Research Institute, fitting an older adult with an eyetracking device. Credit: Baycrest Health Sciences

What happens when the information you try to remember becomes too much for the brain? Apparently we turn to our eyes for help, suggests a recently published Baycrest study.

When you want to remember a phone number, you likely repeat the digits to yourself again and again. We unknowingly do something similar with our eyes to help us recall what we see and we do this more often when we're older, according to recently published findings in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance.

People's eyes move in a certain pattern when observing what's in front of them. When people try to hold that information in mind, they unwittingly move their eyes in the same pattern over and over again, even when looking at a blank screen.

Researchers discovered that older adults naturally tap into this strategy to bolster memory when remembering becomes difficult, building upon their work in identifying the connection between what we see and how we remember. A better understanding of this tactic paves the way to developing eye training programs to boost recollection.

The team used eyetracking technology to capture the eye movements of 40 younger and older adults (ages 18 to 27 and 63 to 84) as they completed a memory task. Each person was given a few seconds to memorize a set of objects on a screen. After time was up, participants were shown a blank screen for a short period of time, followed by another group of objects. Participants were asked to identify whether these were the same or different from the previous set. Researchers repeated this process with 144 different object groupings.

Researchers found that when older adults were shown the blank screen, they unknowingly moved their eyes in the same pattern as when they first saw the objects, as if they were rehearsing. Older adults tapped into this "rehearsal strategy" at the beginning of the task, during the easier levels, while younger adults only used it during more difficult stages. Older adults using this strategy tested almost as well as .

"The same way a person repeats the digits of a to remember it, the eyes help the brain strengthen the memory by repeating the same pattern of eye movements," says Dr. Jennifer Ryan, the study's senior author, a senior scientist at Baycrest's Rotman Research Institute (RRI) and psychology and psychiatry professor at the University of Toronto.

Scientists have known for a long time that as people grow older, their brain recruits alternate neural regions to help when certain areas naturally decline. For example, this happens when older adults are remembering information. This is the first time researchers have shown within older adults that the brain harnesses other motor processes, such as eye movements, to step in when the task becomes too difficult on its own.

"It's as if older adults are using their eyes to create a 'motor trace' to compensate for memory declines during aging," says Jordana Wynn, lead author on the study and a graduate student at the RRI.

"By understanding how we naturally use to compensate for declining areas of the brain, we could tap into this strategy as an intervention to boost memory performance among healthy and adults with memory disorders," says Dr. Ryan.

As next steps, the team will explore which features attract a person's eyes and whether certain aspects help or hinder memory.

Explore further: Can't get an image out of your head? Your eyes are helping to keep it there

More information: Jordana S. Wynn et al, Fixation reinstatement supports visuospatial memory in older adults., Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance (2018). DOI: 10.1037/xhp0000522

Related Stories

Can't get an image out of your head? Your eyes are helping to keep it there

February 14, 2018
Even though you are not aware of it, your eyes play a role in searing an image into your brain, long after you have stopped looking at it.

Brain stimulation helps younger, not older, adults' memory

March 1, 2018
We've all asked ourselves these types of questions: Where did I leave my keys? What was his name? Where did I park my car?

Researchers find that imagining an action-consequence relationship can improve memory

August 11, 2017
The next time you hear about the possibility of rain on the weather forecast, try imagining the umbrella tip being lodged in your home's door lock, blocking you from locking it. This mental exercise could prevent you from ...

Physical and mental multitasking may boost memory, study suggests

February 22, 2018
Performing memory training exercises at the same time as pedaling a stationary bike led to better gains in memory than doing the training exercises after working up a sweat, according to a 55-person study led by UCLA researchers. ...

Scientists make older adults less forgetful in memory tests

February 21, 2013
Scientists at Baycrest Health Sciences' Rotman Research Institute (RRI) and the University of Toronto's Psychology Department have found compelling evidence that older adults can eliminate forgetfulness and perform as well ...

For older adults, volunteering could improve brain function

October 17, 2017
Older adults worried about losing their cognitive functions could consider volunteering as a potential boost, according to a University of Missouri researcher. While volunteering and its associations with physical health ...

Recommended for you

Scientists identify method to study resilience to pain

December 14, 2018
Scientists at the Yale School of Medicine and Veterans Affairs Connecticut Healthcare System have successfully demonstrated that it is possible to pinpoint genes that contribute to inter-individual differences in pain.

Parents' brain activity 'echoes' their infant's brain activity when they play together

December 13, 2018
When infants are playing with objects, their early attempts to pay attention to things are accompanied by bursts of high-frequency activity in their brain. But what happens when parents play together with them? New research, ...

Researchers discover abundant source for neuronal cells

December 13, 2018
USC researchers seeking a way to study genetic activity associated with psychiatric disorders have discovered an abundant source of human cells—the nose.

In the developing brain, scientists find roots of neuropsychiatric diseases

December 13, 2018
The most comprehensive genomic analysis of the human brain ever undertaken has revealed new insights into the changes it undergoes through development, how it varies among individuals, and the roots of neuropsychiatric illnesses ...

Researchers find the cause of and cure for brain injury associated with gut condition

December 13, 2018
Using a mouse model of necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC)—a potentially fatal condition that causes a premature infant's gut to suddenly die—researchers at Johns Hopkins say they have uncovered the molecular causes of the ...

How the brain tells you to scratch that itch

December 13, 2018
It's a maddening cycle that has affected us all: it starts with an itch that triggers scratching, but scratching only makes the itchiness worse. Now, researchers have revealed the brain mechanism driving this uncontrollable ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.