Brain Clutter: A New Spring Cleaning Imperative?

Can we run out of brain space? Scientists now say it is likely for our brain to accumulate “clutter,” thereby making it challenging, especially for older adults with more memories, to filter through all that information. Researchers at Columbia University presented their findings on a review of memories studies. They say the traditional view that “as older adults grow older, they lose memories” may be incorrect. Instead, older adults form too many associations between information, which makes it difficult to sift through all that information, resulting in what researchers consider clutter.

In this review article, researchers analyzed literature on memory decline that generally fell into three categories:: age differences in memory encoding, age differences in retrieval, and the third aspect, that gains very little empirical attention, differences in the contents of memory representations. Researchers believe this third point is central to understanding age differences in memory-related cognitive functions. The researchers suggested that, compared to younger adults, healthy older adults store too much information because of the greater difficulty of suppressing irrelevant information (a cognitive action that declines with age). Those memories then become bound together with meaningful and unmeaningful information, which then creates clutter. Researchers believe this is especially relevant when trying to recall similar memories, where memory recall to select the correct information may be even more challenging.

This review paper seems to be making a bold claim on memory in older adults, (1) that they have greater knowledge of the world, and (2) that the information is never lost, but just cluttered. This turns what we may know about memory on its head (so to speak!) by suggesting that we do not run out of space in our brains as we age, but instead we just remember too many things, creating more clutter in our brains. A compelling case, to be sure, and researchers now want to investigate the outcomes of this cluttered memory hypothesis, and how it affects functional behavior in everyday life.

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Source: Amer, T., Wynn, J. S., & Hasher, L. (2022). Cluttered memory representations shape cognition in old age. Trends in Cognitive Sciences. https://www.cell.com/trends/cognitive-sciences/fulltext/S1364-6613(21)00310-7

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