Chris Martin discusses his memory-improving smartphone app
A study conducted by Chris Martin, Institute for Successful Longevity Faculty Affiliate and assistant professor of Psychology, and researchers at the University of Toronto shows that a smartphone application they developed can enhance memory function in older adults.
Martin was the lead author on the study, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in December. The study found that regular users of the HippoCamera app recalled everyday experiences with over 50 percent more detail than they would otherwise.
Improvements were observed in healthy older adults as well as those showing decline in memory. The findings could prove helpful for those suffering from memory decline, including those in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.
“Our personal identity is intimately related to memory,” Martin said. “We are what we remember, and when we start to lose our memories because of age, disease, or injury, we also lose our sense of self. Our hope is that by helping people feel closer to the events and people in their lives that we can also protect that sense of self.”
Martin answered a few questions about the study and the HippoCamera App.
HOW IS HIPPOCAMERA DIFFERENT FROM OTHER APPS THAT PURPORT TO IMPROVE MEMORY?
"There have been efforts to use digital memory augmentation for people showing signs of memory decline but most of those efforts weren’t really predicated on knowledge from cognitive psychology and neuroscience. They were (essentially) cameras that automatically take pictures for later review.
"We came at this differently. A lot is known about the cognitive and neural mechanisms that support the successful encoding, retention, and retrieval of memory. However, comparatively few efforts have been made to translate this knowledge into technology that can improve memory for everyday experiences. HippoCamera is a digital memory aid that embodies principles from decades of memory science. For example, it encourages users to be more thoughtful about their own lives and to evaluate moments with the intention of later remembering them."
THE APP’S NAME IS A PORTMANTEAU OF HIPPOCAMPUS AND CAMERA. WHAT CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT THE HIPPOCAMPUS?
"The hippocampus is a brain structure that is critically important to memory. It supports the creation and retrieval of new, detail-rich memories, the kind that allow us to mentally travel back and re-experience the past. It also tends to be compromised as we age —structurally and functionally.
"The hippocampus has a unique capacity to create memories from one-shot experiences, moments that we get just one chance to experience. It then reactivates those memories in a way that helps to solidify them, making them more resistant to forgetting. But if the hippocampus is compromised by age or disease, this process of memory reactivation is less likely to happen.
"That was the spirit of the design of the app."
WHAT DO USERS OF THE APP DO?
"They create and replay powerful memory cues. Creating a cue is a three-step process that can be completed in less than one minute.
"First, users create an eight-second verbal description of what they are hoping to remember. Taking a moment to generate a label for the memory strengthens encoding and is beneficial for subsequent retrieval. Next, they record a brief but detailed video of the event. Lastly, they have an opportunity to rate the importance of the memory, which further fosters deep and meaningful encoding.
"The video element is sped up, in this case by a factor of three, which enables efficient review and mimics hippocampal function. The app then does some processing and combines the verbal description and video into a powerful memory cue."
WHAT DOES THE APP DO WITH THAT INFORMATION?
"It enables users to replay high-quality memory cues, and to study them using best practices from memory science. The app will automatically stitch multiple cues together, giving users an opportunity to review their recent past through a set of self-generated narratives. It only takes about one minute to replay five cues, meaning participants in the experiments were using the HippoCamera app for just a few minutes per day.
"So, the app provides a digital scaffold for the hippocampus by giving people a chance to replay cues with their mobile device, which can reactivate and strengthen memories in the brain. In effect, it gives the hippocampus multiple opportunities to establish a durable memory that helps to build a bridge between the present and the past."
WHAT WAS THE EFFECT OF THE APP ON PARTICIPANTS?
"Using HippoCamera increased recollection of event-specific details by over 50%. Importantly, this benefit persisted for at least three months after discontinuing HippoCamera use. This means the older adults in our study were able to more vividly recall their recent past. Using neuroimaging technology we found that using the app changed the way in which the brain stores memories for everyday experiences. Specifically, we found enhanced activity in the hippocampus for memories that had been replayed with HippoCamera."