Though "strength in numbers" and collective memory have long served as historical preservation tools for communities of adults, very little is known about how group collaboration affects later individual recall. It is well-known that age-related memory decline is slower among socially active older adults, but specific social activities that could address age-related memory decline have not yet been identified. Research by Dr. Helena Blumen, Assistant Professor of Medicine (Geriatrics), has found that collaborative recall improved individual recall after short and long delays in both younger and older adults, and that repeated collaboration benefited these adults more than repeatedly working alone up to a week later.
Working in groups of three, Dr. Blumen’s study participants reviewed a list of words and then were asked to recall the words, either alone or in their groups. One member recorded the group's responses, and each member (including the recorder) was encouraged to contribute as much information as they could remember. Members worked together in a free-for-all manner, without further instruction, and were told to solve disagreements amongst themselves. Study participants were asked to recall their words five minutes following collaboration and then one week following collaboration.
"Using a word list of common nouns allowed us to control for confounding variables such as emotion, and natural collaboration was encouraged by providing few restrictions. To determine whether collaboration was helpful or not, we contrasted the subsequent individual memory performance of people who had previously collaborated with those who had worked alone," Dr. Blumen said.
Helena M. Blumen, PhD Collaboration can benefit later individual memory by providing additional study exposure (re-exposure) or additional retrieval opportunities (cross-cuing). An example of re-exposure would be when one family member remembers information about a movie watched the previous week that another family member who also watched the movie did not remember. Cross-cuing can occur when a family member remembers something about last year's Thanksgiving dinner that triggers another to recall additional information that would not otherwise have been available.
"It's been quite difficult to isolate these processes in an experiment, because they operate concurrently. If prior collaboration benefits later individual memory, I can be quite confident that re-exposure has occurred, but it's been more challenging to prove that cross-cuing occurs as well," said Dr. Blumen.
Dr. Blumen assesses cross-cuing by examining whether the amount of increase or improvement between repeated collaborative recall trials is greater than that between repeated individual recall trials. Collaboration can have negative effects that obscure the benefits of re-exposure and cross-cuing. Individuals are often disrupted by the input of others, for example, which makes them contribute less information than they are capable of providing alone. However, the information that the individual fails to recall during collaboration is often recovered when that person is removed from the group setting and begins to work alone.
According to the American Association for Retired Persons (AARP), more than 25% of U.S. adults aged 60 and over reside in Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities (NORCs), and according to the 2010 U.S. Census Bureau, about 3.1% of U.S. adults aged 65 and over reside in skilled nursing facilities. Dr. Blumen’s research suggests that collaborative recall is a social activity that could be used to maintain or improve memory in aging, both for healthy older adults and for individuals with mild cognitive impairment who are at an increased risk for developing Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia. Additionally, collaborative recall could support the development of non-invasive, cost-efficient interventions that impact a large number of older U.S. adults by supporting the preservation of their memory.