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Memory, attitudes and opinions

30 November 2005

How much knowledge do memory-impaired individuals retain about their own attitudes and opinions?

Throughout most of its history, research within neuropsychology has remained largely isolated from research carried out within experimental social psychology. However, the emerging field of social cognitive neuroscience strives to incorporate aspects of neuropsychological research to test models within social/personality psychology.

Initial efforts integrating these disciplines have provided a number of interesting findings. For example, in a study designed to elucidate how the self is neurologically represented, Stanley Klein and colleagues (2002) studied whether a patient (D.B.) suffering from severe amnesia might nonetheless retain a sense of self. A number of memory tests demonstrated D.B.’s profound loss of memory.

However, despite these impairments, D.B.’s performance on a self-knowledge task (which involved indicating the degree to which he possessed a number of traits) did not differ from those of control participants. Across a variety of measures, D.B. was as accurate as controls in knowing his personality. In interpreting their findings, Klein and colleagues suggested that trait self-knowledge may be functionally independent of memory systems, implying that there may be something “special” about self-knowledge.

Attitudes are important for a myriad of reasons

With an aim of building upon previous findings, Dr Newson and colleagues investigated the degree to which individuals with memory disorders retain access to their attitudes and opinions. Attitudes refer to our overall evaluations (that is, like-dislike) of social stimuli. For example, an individual may have a positive attitude toward opera music and a negative attitude toward capital punishment. Attitudes are important for a myriad of reasons. For example, they provide meaning and structure to an individual’s social world. More importantly, attitudes also play a vital role in guiding our behaviour.

Participants in the study (memory-impaired individuals with dementia and matched individuals without dementia) were presented with photographs of various common objects (such as ice-cream and puppies) and asked to indicate the degree to which they liked each object. This task was then repeated on another occasion and the stability of the participants’ attitudes across time was compared to both chance responding (that is, guessing) and the responses provided by matched controls.

Memory-impaired individuals retain access to their attitudes and opinions

The results of the experiment revealed that memory-impaired individuals showed significant stability across time in their attitudes. This suggests that despite their memory loss, memory-impaired individuals retain access to their attitudes and opinions. At the same time, the attitudes of memory-impaired participants showed less stability across time compared to the attitudes of matched controls. This implies that while memory-impaired individuals retain access to their attitudes, reports of their attitudes are more prone to change compared to healthy controls.

While this research has provided important new insights into the extent to which memory-impaired individuals retain access to their attitudes and opinions, many new questions can be addressed. It would be worthwhile to assess whether attitudes that serve different needs are more or less likely to be retained. For instance, are attitudes toward objects central to daily life (food, important people) more likely to be retained than attitudes toward more peripheral objects?

Further research could ask if patients still retain accurate knowledge about their family

More generally, further research could consider additional questions surrounding the relation between memory-impairment and the retention of self-relevant information. For instance, the research could be expanded to determine the degree to which memory-impaired individuals retain access to information about important others. Such research would ask whether, despite their impairments, patients still retain accurate knowledge about their immediate family.

Another area of future research would begin to consider whether the ability to retain core attitudes can be used as a tool to positively change the daily life patterns of memory-impaired individuals. To the extent that self-relevant information is retained, techniques that elicit repeated exposure of this information can be incorporated to make this knowledge more easily accessible.

A third area worthy of future research concerns whether memory-impaired individuals retain unconscious self-knowledge. A number of researchers have demonstrated a dissociation between implicit (unconscious, automatic) and explicit (conscious, controlled) self-knowledge. While the study conducted by Dr. Newson and colleagues focused upon explicit self-knowledge, future research may examine whether memory-impaired individuals retain implicit self-knowledge.

Alzheimer’s Research Trust

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