When you need to remember specific details, try thinking like a child.
A new study pitted college-aged adults against 5- to 11 year-old kids in a memory contest. The younger contestants won by paying better attention to the details. Adults, it seems, get lazy.
In the experiment, both test groups were shown a picture of a cat and told that it had "beta cells inside its body." Researchers then flashed 30 more pictures of cats, bears, and birds, and asked the subjects if these animals had beta cells.
Then, in a twist that was the real thrust of the study, the subjects were shown 28 more images - some of which they had seen in the first stage - and asked if they had seen the image before or not.
The children did very well on this second test, and the results showed that the younger the child, the more accurate the memory. The adults, however, flunked.
Older participants lumped animals into categories, and only paid attention to the details that helped them differentiate between species. When it came time to recognize specific differences in the pictures, they didn't have the information to do so.
Most of the children, on the other hand, hadn't yet learned to categorize, the researchers conclude, so they had to pay close attention to each picture to decide if it was a cat or not.
"As people become smarter, they start to put things into categories, and one of the costs they pay is lower memory accuracy for individual differences," said Vladimir Sloutsky of Ohio State University and co-author of a paper on the study published in the May/June issue of the journal Child Development.
This doesn't mean that adults can't remember fine details. Later in the study, adults were shown pictures of imaginary insects and were able to pick them out of a lineup later on.
"They remembered them because they had to pay close attention," said Sloutsky, who added that the adult memory is flexible and can do a fine job remembering details when asked.