in later years, Sir Walter Scott observed, the elderly cast off life’s vanities and “count their youthful follies o’er, ’till Memory lends her light no more.”
New research, published by MU doctoral psychology student Elizabeth Martin, suggests the reality may be more nuanced. In a study recently published in the journal Cognition and Emotion, Martin found that our ability to recall follies — or, for that matter, anything we’re trying to remember — is actually diminished by having a good time. And no, not for the reasons one might think.
The problem, she says, originates in what scientists call the “working memory,” that short-term storage function of the brain that allows us to, say, memorize a promising phone number at a party. Martin discovered that someone having a good time at that party is actually less likely to remember the phone number than would be the grumpy wall-flower by the punch bowl.
Or, to put it another way, she says, “this research is the first to show that positive mood can negatively impact working memory storage capacity.”
The study, conducted with John Kerns, an associate professor of psychological sciences at MU, had two parts. First, the researchers divided study participants into two groups. The first group saw a video clip depicting a comedy routine; the other a clip on flooring installation. After the clips ended, participants were asked to rate their current moods. Perhaps not surprisingly, the comedy viewers reported that their moods had improved après video. Flooring viewers reported no change.
Part two involved a memory test. Each group was asked to listen to a series of numbers, each broadcast at a rate of four numbers per second, through headphones. Participants were then asked to recall the last six numbers in order. Scores of the comedy group, they of the jovial mood, were significantly lower.
The implications of her finding are not entirely clear, but Martin urges further research to help clarify matters. One useful project would be to explore other venues where the relationship of mood and working-memory storage is of particular consequence. School classrooms, for example.
And those fortunate few whose blissful temperaments may predispose them to forgetfulness? Would they be better off embracing melancholia? Not at all, Martin says: “Happiness is still a good thing, even when it comes to cognition. While working memory storage is decreased, being in a good mood is not all bad. Being in a good mood has been shown to increase creative problem-solving skills and other aspects of thinking.”