Sunday, April 7, 2013

Memory Reconstruction and the Fountain of Youth

Memory reconstruction can be studied not only in terms of memory, but also studied as a way of measuring how people process experience. How a person reconstructs an experience can demonstrate how they initially processed the experience considering that remembered details are also details that the person noticed and was attentive to.
An article** in the Journal of Nonverbal Behavior called “Aging and the Effects of Facial and Prosodic Cues on Emotional Intensity Ratings and Memory Reconstructions” recounts a study in which reconstruction is both a method of measuring and a factor that should be measured. The study experimented with age and how it effects the ability to both show and pick up on nonverbal emotional cues both in the expression of the face and language (prosody). The study wanted to test the theory that with age our ability to process and understand nonverbal emotional cues lowers. This idea conflicts with another theory that as we age our predilection for absorbing emotional rather than informational details is heightened. One possible reason for why it may seem older persons have a lower emotional capacity is due to the wrinkled skin affecting the emotional showcases on the face, which is why the study included prosodic, vocal emotional cues.
The study consisted of two experiments. The first experiment involved having young (approximately 23 years) and old (approximately 77 years) participants watch two young actresses have an “emotionally laden” conversation. How the participants processed the conversation was based on the reconstruction of the memory of the emotional aspects of the conversation between the actresses. In the second experiment, the actress’s ages were changed to match the age of the participants. The first experiment found that older adults were not as good at picking up on nonverbal emotional cues as the younger participants. The second experiment, however, showed that participants’ ability to pick up on nonverbal emotional cues both in voice and face was not dependent on age when the participants were the same age as the actresses.
So, the wrinkles may be to blame for someone thinking their grandma is a cold-hearted emotional wasteland. The study shows that both emotional output and understanding does not decline with age. I feel like it is rather our youth-centric society that might lead us to believe so. For example, how does a middle-aged person with multiple face lifts exude emotion differently from a person the same age without the work done? Arguably the facelift has an aging effect as far as the ability to communicate emotional nonverbal cues, hence a possible favoritism of facial appearance over functionality. An interesting study might be to just actors on their emotional “readability,” post and prior getting work done. I’m sure there are physical therapists that help patients who had work done with facial expressions, especially after procedures that involve tightening or plumping of the face where muscles might be numbed. I bet there is a relationship between getting “facially restrictive” work done and a heightened use of prosodic nonverbal cues to communicate emotion. In other words, people who got work done on their face might speak more dramatically as compensation. How does the reconstruction of the face affect the reconstruction of emotional memories? Basically, I am just replacing the age variable with a plastic surgery variable.
Memory reconstruction is an interesting way of judging the initial processing of an experience. I have to question, however, how other factors might play into the reconstruction of memory. For example, if the participant remembered something based on their own emotional experience and projected that onto the actress regardless of her nonverbal emotional cues. The actress could, for example, be talking angrily about one time a neighbor didn’t clean up after a pet and she got dog doo on her shoe. Now if the participant just, let’s say, lost a pet to a car accident, they might attribute their sad emotions to an experience the actress is trying to communicate with angry nonverbal cues. The distance between experiencing and remembering I would argue is neither direct nor dependable. Not to say reconstruction should not be used to judge processing of experience (as it is pretty much the only method of communicating experience). The study, though I’m sure they were taken, did not mention when after the participants saw the conversation between actresses they were questioned. I argue it should be immediately to cut out time for reflection. Also, what might disqualify a participant who might not be reliable in only interpreting the emotional aspects of the nonverbal cues. If, for example, a participant had a thing against redheads. Let’s say their husband cheated on them with a redhead and so all redheaded females are construed as being aggressive and lascivious. If one of the actresses had red hair then the experiment is affected by a bias that the experimenters have no way of knowing about.   
Regardless, I do think the study points out a human bias of age and experience that should be noted. To me it makes sense that older people would have an easier time of judging the emotional nonverbal cues of people their age. I’ve always thought that my grandmother didn’t react strongly to certain situations because she has “seen it all” and has much more life experience than I do. But, while she does have more life experience that is no reason why her emotional reaction to a situation might seem less severe as mine. My grandmother may have an even stronger emotional response to a situation, and I just have a more difficult time picking up on her nonverbal emotional cues. With the study in mind, I will perhaps pay closer attention to her prosodic rather than her facial cues when I’m trying to determine her emotional reaction. I also will apply the same principles when judging someone who has undergone face-altering plastic surgery. 

**The article can be found in the Pratt Library social science database**

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