Memory is notoriously fallible.
The reconstructive nature of memory is at the heart of this fallibility. Yet the fallible nature of memory is predictable, and may be minimized, or at least, recognized by the individual. Becoming aware of one’s own memory failings and minimizing those failings are the primary goals of research conducted in the Cognitive Memory and Aging Laboratory at Tufts University.
We frequently learn more about memory from its failures rather than its successes. As such, our research has delved into the various contexts that result in episodic memory failures. We take the theoretical perspective that memory decisions are inferential in nature. An episodic event is not represented as a single unit, but rather a distribution of elements that can be differentially accessed at retrieval. Accessibility to those elements influences both memory and metamemorial decisions.
Understanding the Nature of Memory Fallibility
In the context of episodic long term memory our lab works to specify the boundaries by which memory reconstruction results in distortion. Our work takes the theoretical perspective that memory decisions are inferential in nature. An episodic event is not represented as a single unit, but rather a distribution of elements or attributes. Attributes, like pieces of a puzzle, must be recombined to reconstruct the memory. Our research has demonstrated that incorrect recombination of attributes can result in incorrectly thinking one performed an action only imagined, incorrectly thinking that an event only thought about actually took place, and incorrectly remembering details in a witnessed event. We have learned that these memory errors can be increased by reducing the amount of time people have to respond, by forcing people to respond, by varying the time between experience and memory test, and by varying the similarity between the original experience and subsequent experiences.
Understanding How Age and Stress Affect Memory Fallibility
Stress and age independently and in combination influence memory fallibility. Research in our lab has demonstrated that as we age we are more likely to rely on automatic, or less cognitively effortful processes, often times resulting in memory errors and distortion. For example, we have shown that people over the age of 60 are more likely to use the less effortful heuristics when retrieving verbal and spatial information, are less likely to use diagnostic attributes when making metacognitive predictions, and do not control memory encoding or output in efficacious ways. Psychosocial stress compounds these issues, with, for example, older adults adopting different memory retrieval strategies in the context of stereotype threat.
Minimizing Errors and Promoting Memory Accuracy
Understanding the factors that influence fallibility and developing techniques to reduce fallibility are core aspects to the research conducting in the Cognitive Aging and Memory Lab. We take three approaches towards error reduction. We investigate how metacognitive processes of monitoring and control can be used to become better aware of possible memory failings and implement strategies to reduce the occurrence of those failings. We also investigate how metacognitive monitoring and control processes at retrieval can be used to regulate the output of errors. We investigate how external factors such as stress and anxiety positively influence the regulation of output, and ways in which memories can be encoded to overcome deleterious effects of stress. Finally, we continue to develop intervention techniques that treat memory as a skill to be improved upon by training metacognitive skills and encouraging analytic and controlled processing.
The consequences of memory fallibility can be significant. Inaccurate recollection of medication-taking have resulted in overdoses. Inaccurate recollections of witnessed events have resulted in wrongful convictions. Inaccurate recollections of childhood experiences have destroyed families.
Specific Areas of Interest: Metamemory Across the Lifespan, Eyewitness Memory, Retrieval Enhanced Suggestibility, Memory Accuracy
Present Lab Members
Associate Professor of Psychology at Tufts University, Dr. Thomas investigates the subjective experience that accompanies memories. Her research encompasses metacognition, memory distortion, eyewitness memory, and age related changes in memory. Dr. Thomas received her Ph.D. in Cognitive Psychology from the University of Washington, and then spent three years as an NIA postdoctoral fellow at Washington University in St. Louis, MO. She spent a final year at Washington University as a research scientist, studying changes in long-term memory as a function of aging. After teaching at Colby College for two years, Dr. Thomas came to the Department of Psychology at Tufts University, where she established the Cognitive Aging and Memory Lab in 2007. Graduate and Undergraduate students interested in working in the Cognitive Aging and Memory Lab should contact Ayanna for more information. Dr. Thomas’ research has been funded by grants from the National Institute on Aging and National Institute of Neurological Disorder and Stroke, and has been featured in such popular media outlets as Psychology Today, The Initiative for Neuroscience and the Law, and the L.A. Times.
Renee earned her B.S. in Psychology from University of Southern Indiana. Before coming to Tufts, she worked at the Memory and Cognition Lab at Brandeis University, where she investigated how working memory demands impact speech comprehension for older adults with and without hearing loss. Her primary research interests include investigating differences in metacognition and self-regulation of study in younger and older adults. She also investigates the relationship between social isolation and cognition in older adults who have relocated to independent living communities.
Greg earned his B.A. from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and is a second year graduate student in the Cognitive Aging and Memory Lab. His research interests encompass the theoretical and applied dimensions of human learning and memory. Specifically, his research examines the factors that facilitate, or impair, one’s ability to introspect accurately on the learning process. His research also investigates the corruption of eyewitness memory, with an emphasis on promoting accurate memory performance in that domain.
Alia received her B.S. in Psychology in 2015 from Western Washington University. She worked in an applied cognition lab at Western for three years before enrolling at Tufts, researching topics such as intrusive and involuntary thoughts, how we can misremember the source of our memories, and the impact inattentional blindness has on eyewitness memory. Alia’s main interest lies in the field of eyewitness memory and accuracy. More specifically, her current research focuses on how misinformation can impact eyewitness accuracy.
Former Lab Members
Jessica Karanian, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, John Jay School of Criminal Justice
Leamarie Gordon, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Assumption College
Amy Smith, Ph.D., Postdoctoral Fellow, Center for Applied Brain and Cognitive Studies
Clinton Perry, Ph.D., User Experience Researcher, Citizen Bank
Bailey Bonura, M.S., M.D.
Stacey Dubois, M.S.
2016 – Mellissa (Rowan) Rice (Honor’s Thesis), Vivek Bilolikar (Honor’s Thesis), Taylor Hodhod (Honor’s Thesis) Danielle Sorcher, Reema Al-Marzoog, Alandra Champion
2015 – Alexander Siegel (Honors Thesis), Shoshana Oppenheim (Honors Thesis), Adrienne Lange, Christina Harvey (Honors Thesis)
2014 – Nishi Mehta (Honors Thesis), Paul Cernasov (Independent Project), Spencer Frank, (Independent Project)
2013 – Sarah Halloran, Alex Schmider, William Carroll (Honors Thesis), Charles Parsow (Independent Project), Darius Izadpanah, Michael Richard (Honors Thesis), Caroline Chen (Independent Project), Mark Westerfield
2011 – Nicholas Gang, Joe Nah, Shannon Robinson, Samia Zahran
2010 – Issa Baraka, Nicole LeBlanc, Peter Millar (Honors Thesis), Gina Sultan, Cara Wood
2009 – Tiffany Morton, Dominica Nino
Monitoring and Control Affects Memory
Learners across the lifespan are generally unaware of the conditions that will result in optimal learning. Researchers at the Cognitive Aging and Memory Lab have examined how metacognitive monitoring and control decisions are made, how that decisions change across the lifespan, and how the conditions of learning and retrieval can be constructed to optimize metacognition.
Decaro, R. & Thomas, A.K. (2019). How retrieval success and task demands drive age differences in self-regulated learning. Journal of Memory & Language.
Hughes, G., Taylor, H.A., & Thomas A.K. (2018). Study techniques differentially influence delayed JOLs in sixth grade math learners. Metacognition and Learning.
Bulevich, J.B., Parsow, C., & Thomas, A.K. (2016) Integration is critical for test potentiation effects. Memory, 24, 1267-1277.
Thomas, A. K. & Lee, M. (2015). Improving Metacomprehension by Fostering Active Engagement. In Memory (Moulin, C. & Souchay, C. ed), Wiley-Blackwell, London.
Thomas, A.K., Lee, M., & Hughes, G. (2015). Feeling-of-Knowing judgments (FOKs). In the Oxford Handbook of Metamemory (Dunlosky, J. & Tauber, S. ed), Oxford University Press, New York.
Taylor, H.A., Thomas, A. K., Artuso, C., Eastman, C. (2014). Effects of global and local processing visuo-spatial working memory. C. Freksa et al. (Eds.): Spatial Cognition 2014, LNAI 8684, 14-29.
Gordon, L. T., Soldan, A., Thomas, A. K., & Stern, Y. (2013). Effect of Repetition Lag on Priming of Unfamiliar Visual Objects in Young and Older adults. Psychology & Aging, 28, 219-231.
Thomas, A. K., Balota, D. A., & Lee, M. (2013). Metacognitive Monitoring and Dementia: How Intrinsic and Extrinsic Cues Influence Judgments of Learning in People With Early-Stage Alzheimer’s Disease. Neuropsychology, 27, 452-463.
Bulevich, J.B.x, & Thomas, A. K. (2012). Retrieval effort improves memory and metamemory in the face of misinformation. Journal of Memory & Language, 67, 45-58.
Thomas, A.K., Bulevich, J. B., & Dubois, S. J. (2012). An analysis of the determinants of the feeling-of-knowing. Consciousness and Cognition, 21, 1681-1694.
Thomas, A.K., Bonura, B. M., Taylor, H.A., & Brunye, T.T. (2012). Metacognitive Monitoring in Visuospatial Working Memory. Psychology and Aging, 27, 1099-1110.
Thomas, A. K., Bonura, B. M., & Taylor H.A. (2012). The Influence of Semantic Relationships on Older Adult Map Memory. Psychology &Aging, 27, 657-665.
Thomas, A. K. & Millar, P. R. (2011). Reducing the Framing Effect Bias in Older Adults by Encouraging Analytical Processing. Journal of Gerontology: Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 67B, 139-149.
Thomas, A. K., Bulevich, J.B., & Dubois, S. (2010). Context affects feeling-of-knowing accuracy in younger and older adults. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory & Cognition, 37, 96-108.
Thomas, A. K. & McDaniel, M. A. (2007). The negative cascade of incongruent task-test processing in memory and metamemory. Memory & Cognition, 35, 668-678.
Thomas, A. K. & McDaniel, M. A. (2007). Metacomprehension for educationally relevant materials: Dramatic effects of encoding-retrieval interactions. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 14, 212-218.
Overcoming Limiting Factors on Memory Performance
Our research lab takes the perspective that memory is a skill that can be improved. Towards this end, we have investigated factors that limit memory performance, and examined whether such limitations result in transient or persistent limitations. We have found that cognitive factors, (e.g., cognitive effort, task structure) contextual factors (acute stress, stereotype activation), and individual differences in age, diet, and general cognitive functioning can result in both transient and persistent memory retrieval limitations. However, limitations may be overcome by influencing the stability of memory representations, changing the demands of the task, and encouraging metacognitive task reappraisal.
Smith A.M, Race E.A., Davis, F.C., & Thomas, A.K. (2018) Retrieval practice improves item memory but not source memory in the context of stress. Brain & Cognition.
Brunyé T.T., Smith, A.M., Horner, C., Thomas, A.K. (2018) Verbal long-term memory is enhanced by retrieval practice but impaired by prefrontal direct current stimulation. Brain & Cognition.
Smith A.M., Dijkstra, K., Gordon, L.T., Romero, M., & Thomas, A.K. (2018). An Investigation into the Impact of Acute Stress on Encoding in Older Adults. Aging, Neuropsychology, and Cognition
Smith, A.M, Davis, C.F., Romero, L.M. & Thomas, A.K. (2018). Criterial Learning is not enough: Retrieval practice is necessary for improving post-stress memory accessibility. Behavioral Neuroscience.
Smith, A.M., & Thomas, A.K. (2017). Reducing the consequences of acute stress on memory and retrieval. The Journal of Applied Research in Memory & Cognition.
Dai, R., Thomas, A.K., & Taylor, H.A. (2018). Age-related differences in the use of spatial and categorical relationships in a visuo-spatial working memory task. Memory & Cognition.
Thomas, A.K., Smith A.M. & Mazerolle, M. (2018). The unexpected relationship between retrieval demands and older adult memory when faced with age-related stereotypes. Journal of Gerontology.
Dai, R., Thomas, A.K., & Taylor, H.A. (2018). When to look at maps: Metacognitive control in environment learning. Cognitive Research Principles & Implications.
Reid, A. G. Rakhilin, M., Patel, A.D., Urry, H. L., and Thomas A. K. (2017). New Technology for Studying the Impact of Regular Singing and Song Learning on Cognitive Function in Older Adults: A Feasibility Study. Psychomusicology: Music, Mind, and Brain, 27, 132-144.
Smith, A. M., Gallo D.A., Barber, S. J., Maddox K., & Thomas, A. K. (2017). Stereotypes, Warnings, and Demographic Characteristics Influence Older Adults’ Susceptibility to Associative False Memory Errors. The Gerontologist.
Smith, A. M., Floerke, V. A., & Thomas. A. K. (2016). Retrieval practice protects memory against acute stress. Science, 354, 1046-1048.
Perry, C., Thomas, A. K., Taylor, H. A., Jacques, P. F., & Kanarek, R. B. (2016). The impact of caffeine use across the lifespan on cognitive performance in the elderly. Appetite.
Thomas, A. K., & McDaniel, M. A. (2012). The interaction between frontal functioning and encoding processes in reducing false memories. Aging, Neuropsychology, and Cognition, 20, 443-470.
Thomas, A. K. & Dubois, S. (2011). Reducing the Burden of Stereotype Threat Eliminates Age Differences in Memory Distortion. Psychological Science, 22, 1515-1517.
Thomas, A. K., Dave, J. B., & Bonura, B. M. (2010, 2019). Neuropsychological components of cognitive aging. In the Handbook of Medical Neuropsychology: Applications of Cognitive Neuroscience (Armstrong, C. L. ed), Springer Publishing Company.
Eyewitness Memory and Memory Distortion
As a general phenomenon, false memories has been an extraordinarily popular topic for research. Our research examining false memories, memory distortion, and misinformation susceptibility has been primarily concerned with confusions between different sources of information. We have determined that certain sources of information are highly confusable. Further, source confusion is influenced by changing the perceptual and contextual cues associated with specific memories, and by influencing memory access to specific sources of information. Our research has also demonstrated that by encouraging careful metacognitive monitoring of memory sources at retrieval, people can reduce memory errors that may result from these confusions.
Gordon, L.T., Bilolikar, V., Hodhod, T., & Thomas, A. K. (2019). Attentional allocation during complex episodic memory formation. Memory & Cognition.
Hyman, I. E., Wulff, A., & Thomas A.K. (2018). Crime blindness: How selective attention and inattentional blindness can disrupt eyewitness awareness and memory. Policy Insights from Behavioral and Brain Sciences.
Thomas A.K, Gordon, L. M., Cernasov, P., & Bulevich. J.B. (2017). The effect of testing can increase or decrease misinformation susceptibility depending on the retention interval. Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications.
Gordon, L. M. & Thomas A.K. (2017). The Forward Effects of Testing on Eyewitness Memory: The Tension between Suggestibility and Learning. Journal of Memory & Language.
Auslander, M. V., Thomas, A.K., & Gutchess, A.H. (2017). How confidence moderates the control-belief memory performance relationship in the misinformation effect. Experimental Aging Research, 43.
Thomas, A. K., Chen, C., Gordon, L. T., & Tenebrink T. (2015). Choose your words wisely: What verbal hesitation indicates about eyewitness memory. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 29, 735-741.
Gordon, L., Bulevich, J. B. & Thomas, A. K. (2015). Looking for answers in all the wrong places: How testing facilitates learning of misinformation. Journal of Memory and Language, 83, 140-151.
Thomas, A. K., Gordon, L. & Bulevich, J. B. (2014). Applications of Cognitive Decline to Eyewitness Memory. In the Elderly Witness (Toglia, M. P., Ross, D. F., Pozzulo, J., & Pica, E. ed), Springer Publishing Company.
Gordon, L. T. & Thomas, A. K. (2014). Testing potentiates learning in the misinformation paradigm. Memory & Cognition, 42, 186-197.
Thomas, A.K., Bulevich, J. B. & Chan, J.C.K. (2010). Testing promotes eyewitness accuracy with a warning: Implications for retrieval enhanced suggestibility. Journal of Memory & Language, 63, 149-157.
Chan, J. C. K., Thomas, A. K., & Bulevich, J. B. (2009). Recalling a Witnessed Event Increases Eyewitness Suggestibility. Psychological Science, 20, 66-73.
Thomas, A. K., Hannula, D. E., and Loftus, E. F. (2007). How Self-Relevant Imagination Affects Memory for Behaviour. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 21, 69-86.
Thomas, A. K. & Bulevich, J. B. (2006). Effective Cue Utilization Reduces Memory Errors in Older Adults. Psychology & Aging, 21, 379-389.
Thomas, A. K. & Loftus, E.F. (2006). Eyewitness memory: Getting more accurate information. Gazette, 67, #4, 30-31. (Magazine of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police).
Thomas, A. K. & Sommers, M. S. (2005). Attention to item-specific processing eliminates age effects in false memories. Journal of Memory & Language, 52, 71-86.
Thomas, A. K., Bulevich, J. B., & Loftus, E. F. (2003). Exploring the role of repetition and sensory elaboration in the imagination inflation effect. Memory & Cognition, 31, 630-640.
Berliner, L., Hyman, I., Thomas, A. K., & Fitzgerald, M. (2003). Children’s Memory for Traumatic and Positive Experiences: Relationship to psychological symptoms. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 16, 229-236.
Thomas, A. K., & Loftus, E. F. (2002). Creating bizarre false memories through imagination. Memory & Cognition, 30, 423-431.
Hoffman, H. G., Garcia-Palacios, A., Thomas, A. K. & Schmidt, A. (2001). Virtual Reality Monitoring: Phenomenal Characteristics of Real, Virtual, and False Memories. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 4, 565572.
Join Our Senior Volunteer List
Make a difference!
If you a senior (aged 60 or older) who lives in the Boston Metro area, we invite you to join the Tufts University Psychology Department’s Aging Research Registry. The purpose of the registry is to link the senior community with research at Tufts University.
The goal of our research is to understand how aging affects physical, mental, and emotional health. We want to learn more about how people can maintain healthy minds and bodies across adulthood. If you join our volunteer list, you will be periodically contacted about research study opportunities. When you match with a study, a researcher will contact you to explain its purpose and details. At that time you will be able to ask questions and decide whether or not you want to participate in that particular study. Participation is always voluntary.
Join our senior volunteer list
By becoming a research volunteer you will help us learn more about how to maintain healthy minds and bodies across our lifespan. We value your privacy—your information will be kept confidential and will never be shared with anyone outside of our research team. Join now!
Become a Research Participant
- Research participants over the age of 60 are always needed.
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org or call 617-627-4515 to become a participant.
Frequently asked questions about being a participant:
1. Where do the studies take place?
Most studies take place on the in the Psychology Department at Tufts University (located at 490 Boston Avenue, Medford MA).
2. When do the studies take place?
We can schedule an appointment that is convenient for you and fits with your schedule.
3. How long do the studies last?
Studies take on average 1 to 3 hours to complete. It varies depending upon the type of study being conducted.
4. Will there be parking for me?
Yes. Free campus parking is provided.
5. Will I be paid for my time?
Yes. Most of our studies offer compensation at a rate equivalent to $15/ hour. We are aware that scientific research studies do not pay enough, but your participation offers an important contribution to scientific progress.
6. Will I be told how I did on tests?
No. We do not provide individual feedback. However, upon request, the final results of the study can be sent after the study is completed.
7. Will anyone else know how I did on the study tasks?
Your privacy is important to us. You data will be kept confidential and your information will not be shared with anyone outside of the research team..
8. How often will I be contacted about research study opportunities?
When you join our research volunteer list you can specify how often you would like to be contacted.
9. What are the risks involved?
Most of our studies involve paper and pencil and computer tasks, and there are no risks involved. You will be informed in advance of any risks. All of our studies are monitored and approved by the San Francisco State University Institutional Review Board.
10. Who can I contact if I want to be removed from the volunteer research list or if I have other questions?
You can reach us at 617-627-4515 or at email@example.com
Department of Psychology
490 Boston Ave, Room 204
Medford, MA 02155