Age-Related Changes in Automatic and Consciously-Controlled Memory Processes

Janine Margaret Jennings


Memory retrieval relies on automatic and consciously-controlled processes. However, it is nor clear whether one or both of these influences are affected by age. The present experiments used Jacoby's (1991) process dissociation procedure to separately examine the effects of aging on each process. The results show that age impairs consciously-controlled memory but leaves automatic processing intact (Experiments 1, 2, 5 & 6). Moreover, age-related declines in conscious processes are severe. Elderly adults revealed marked deficits in conscious memory when only three words intervened between study and test (Experiments 3 - 5).

In these experiments (Experiments 1 - 5) impairments in conscious influences left automatic memory as the sole basis for retrieval, which led to "false" recognition errors. Although these errors suggest that older adults may be unaware of the process that underlies their performance (automatic versus conscious), they actually proved as aware as young adults and were highly capable of identifying which form of processing they used (Experiment 6). More importantly, the level of memory ability they demonstrated in the lab corresponded to their performance in the real world. Elderly subjects showed a high correlation between conscious memory failures on lab tasks and self-reported failures in everyday life (Experiment 7). This result suggests that the lab tests used were ecologically valid and predictive of real world functioning. The implications of these seven experiments for memory assessment and rehabilitation are discussed.