Contextual Encoding Strategies: Pathways for Decreasing Age-Related

Deficits in Memory Recall
Alison Fietz
Student number: 220078965
The University of New England

Word Count: 3981



Various studies have documented diminished capabilities in mnemonic recollection processes
of healthy aging adults. Along with the acknowledged cognitive and neuropsychological
deficits, recent findings are discovering simultaneous strengths and plasticity. Recall tasks
may be associated with a declining ability to “self-initiate” retrieval processes and providing
additional contextual cues during recognition encoding and testing may circumvent this. Data
is reviewed that suggests support supplied from the environmental context that information is
presented in can improve the performance of older adults. Research suggests singular item
memory remains relatively intact compared to associative memory. Strategies such as
unitization, which occurs when the different pieces of an association are processed in such a
way that they become integrated, are presented. Older adults feel enhanced by, attend more to
and recall more positive material than younger adults do; this is discussed as the positivity
effect. Recent findings that indicate that the executive processes related to working memory
for emotion may be unhindered with age and relative studies are also discussed.


Contextual Encoding Strategies: Pathways for Decreasing
Age-Related Deficits in Memory Recall
In regard to cognitive aging, a substantial body of literature in the last 20 years has
documented diminished abilities and impaired memory in older adults, even when spared
from dementia (Park, 2012). The overall pattern of data shows decreases in processing
speed, working memory (the short-term preservation and movement of material) cued and
free recall from long-term memory, source memory (memory for the context of material) as
well as divided and selective attention. Nonetheless, recent discoveries in psychological and
social sciences are finding that aging and cognitive functioning may be a more malleable and
complex process than initially acknowledged. Cognitive performance appears to remain
plastic in older adults (Hertzog, Kramer, Wilson, & Lindenberger, 2008)
Can encoding strategies target areas within the aging brain; to harness its strength’s to
decrease deficits? A lot of psychological researchers appear to think so. In a meta-analysis
by Verhaeghen, Marcoen, and Goossens (1992) the use of effective encoding strategies saw
large improvements in mean memory - 0.78 standard deviations. Luo, Hendriks, and Craik
(2007) suggest that support supplied from the environmental context that words or
information is presented in can improve the performance of older adults. Facets of the task or
context recompense for processing actions that can no longer be carried out automatically by
the aging brain.
Researchers are revealing more interest in investigating the cognitive strengths that
older people are displaying, along with the weaknesses. This could be an inevitable necessity
as people in the 65-84-year-old age group are predicted to grow from 2.4 million in 2007 to
4.0 million in 2022 (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2009). The purpose of the present article
is to consider the possible strategies available; in regard to memory encoding and recall in the
aging brain. This supplements a broad base of gerontology memory research from

developmental, neuropsychological and cognitive studies. Therefore, we will specifically
focus on two current theoretical approaches and their influences on memory encoding
research: dual-processing and socioemotional selectivity theories. These two frameworks
appear to contain possible pathways available that could contribute to more positive
outcomes in regard to encoding and retrieval in the aging brain.
Dual-process models
Philosophers and psychologists have been discussing distinctions in memory
processing since the time of Aristotle; yet cognitive psychologists only began the formal
development of dual-process models in the 1970s. These have indicated that recognition
memory ability can be accomplished by either of two distinctly independent types of
processes, consistently referred to as recollection and familiarity (Mandler, 1980). A
common experience that illustrates this is when you find someone familiar, yet you can’t
recollect whom they are or where you formerly encountered that person. Most current
memory researchers would agree that to substantiate for the existing literature on memory
recognition; there are at least two-different types or processes of memory involved. Java
(1996) using the remember/know procedure found an age-related reduction in recollection
(remembering) responses whereas familiarity (knowing) responses remained unaffected or
even showed an increase. Successful recall depends largely on conscious recollection and
age-related deficits are larger for recollection than for familiarity (Danckert & Craik, 2013).
Despite the differences among the several dual-processing models that have been
proposed, there are some general agreements. First, studies of processing speed have revealed
that familiarity is quicker than recollection. Under speeded conditions, accurate familiarity
based discriminations were made by subjects between items that were not studied and were
recently studied. These were made much faster than discriminations that required recollection
of specific information, such as where or when an item was initially encountered (Hintzman,

Caulton, & Levitin, 1998). Second, familiarity and recollection show separate
electrophysiological correlates. Scalp recordings of event related potentials (ERPs) during
tests of recognition show items that are related to accurate memory for particular detail of the
study episode- “remembered” items; exhibit different spatial and temporal scalp distributions
to items that are recognized or “familiar” (Curran, 2000). Thirdly, there is more severe
disruption in recollection than familiarity in subjects that exhibit certain brain injuries. A
number of models presume that medial temporal lobe damage (e.g., hippocampus and the
neighboring temporal lobe inclusive of the parahippocampul gyrus) see Figure 1, can cause
forms of amnesia that dislocates recollection but does not disrupt familiarity. Indicating that
the two processes use different areas of the brain. Studies of patients with amnesia show
greater impairments on tests based on recollecting information or having to associate items
together; than on familiarity or recognizing items (Aggleton & Shaw, 1996)

Figure 1.

Figure 1. Regions of the brain associated with recollection and familiarity memory. From the
Neuroanotomical Model within the dual-processing framework (Andrew P. Yonelinas, 2002).


The Yonelinas model
Some of the dual-process models, such as the one argued by Yonelinas and colleagues
(Quamme, Frederick, Kroll, Yonelinas, & Dobbins, 2002) believe that in recollection
subjects can retrieve several different aspects of a study episode (spatial and temporal
context, associations among distinctive factors of an occasion). Yet for some items subjects
are incapable of retrieving any precise information about the study episode. The Yonelinas
model describes recollection as a “threshold retrieval process” and some items fall
underneath the recollective threshold. When this happens participants are likely to lean on
evaluations of familiarity (Andrew P Yonelinas, 1999).
An important component within the Yonelinas model is the idea that it is not expected
that familiarity support associative memory for a couple of individual items. Unless these
separate, distinct items can be unitized and treated as an individual item (e.g., the way that a
mouth, eyes and nose make a face). This idea of associative unitization has formed the basis
of various studies into strategies to decrease age-related recall deficits (Chen & Naveh-
Benjamin, 2012; Murray & Kensinger, 2013; Ranganath, 2010; Troyer, D'Souza,
Vandermorris, & Murphy, 2011; Wegesin, Jacobs, Zubin, Ventura, & Stern, 2000). Recall is
more affected than familiarity in older adults, so environmental support to either of these
parallel memory processes can help with retrieval problems.
Unitization: an encoding strategy
In a recent meta-analysis, associative memory deficits were reported in older adults for
a wide assortment of materials, including pairs of pictures, word pairs, object-color pairs,
face-name and item-spatial associations (Old & Naveh-Benjamin, 2008). Inability to
spontaneously utilize effective associative strategies compared to the younger groups,
contributes to this decline. According to Giovanello and Schacter (2012) encoding word pairs
by using a deep interactive encoding strategy; reduces associative deficits in older adults. An

example being when participants are inspired to construct a sentence that binds two words
together (Matzen & Benjamin, 2013).
Unitization happens when the different constituents of an association are processed in
an integrative way to form a clear whole. A study by Bastin et al. (2013) tested the hypothesis
that age-related variances in associative memory can be condensed if subjects are told to use
an encoding strategy that encourages unitization. They used a procedure that previously had
success in easing the memory deficits with amnesic patients who had severe impairments in
contextual recollection; yet whose memory of item recognition was less affected (Diana,
Yonelinas, & Ranganath, 2010).
In two experiments performed in the Bastin et al., (2013) study, a group of 20 older
and 20 young adults had to learn novel associations between a background colour and a
word, underneath two conditions. In the condition that promoted unitization they had to
envision that the item was the same colour as the background. This was called the Item Detail
condition. In the condition that did not promote unitization, they had to envision the item
interacting with another coloured object. This was called the Context Detail condition. A list
of 100 concrete nouns and related sentences was used. The words were randomly distributed
into two sets of 50. The designation of the sets to either condition was counterbalanced across
subjects. At test they had to remember the colour that was linked to each word (source
The results from repeated measures ANOVAs in this study were consistent with their
hypothesis, that associative encoding strategies can regulate the effects of aging on source
memory. By creating elaborative meaning through the use of imaginative sentence
generation, a unitized representation of the item and the colour was established in the Item
Detail condition. An integrated “gestalt” of the two components resulted in the creation of a
singular novel item representation. Both experiments revealed deficits in source memory

performance in both young and older participants in the Context Detail condition. By
encoding colour as a contextual detail (the item interacting with another object of the same
colour) the item and the colour remained separate within the association. In the second
experiment, they examined receiver-operating characteristics in the older adults, which
suggested that in the Item Detail condition familiarity added more to source memory
performance than it did in the Context Detail condition. As the Item Detail condition reduced
the item to become the colour, there was not as much need for recollection processes to have
to retrieve associations. Relying more on familiarity processes, which are considered more
intact among older adults.

See Figure 2.
! !
Green Green
“cloth-green” “sock-green”
! !
“The cloth is green because the waiter “The sock has a 100 euro-bill in it
used it to clean up spilled pea soup.” because the traveller put the bill in
his sock to keep it safe.

Red Red
“turtle-red” “monkey-red”
! !
“The turtle is red because the kids at the beach “The monkey is on the stop sign
painted the shell so it would stand out among to show people that they should
the other turtles.” turn right to get to the zoo.”

Figure 2. A diagrammatic representation of an example of the materials used in the source (colour)
memory experiment by Bastin et al., (2013). Young and older adult participants were given encoding
instructions that did or did not promote unitization of new item-colour associations.


On the contrary, in an associative memory study Jager, Mecklinger, and Kliegel (2010)
reported greater age-related deficits for materials (i.e., two very similar faces) they expected
would be unitized a lot more easily; compared to difficult to unitize materials (i.e., two highly
different faces). Therefore, it appears the efficiency of unitization, as an encoding strategy in
older adults could partially be dependent on the type of materials and items that need to be
encoded. At least in regard to item-colour associations, the Bastin et al., (2013) study
suggests unitization of items at encoding may contribute to reductions in associative memory
decline observed in the aged. In conclusion, they do suggest further research is needed into
the brain regions that are associated with change in normal aging. In particular the perirhinal
and entorhinal cortices, which instigate “familiarity” activations and the hippocampal areas,
which are involved with “recollection” (Daselaar, Fleck, Dobbins, Madden, & Cabeza, 2006).
The “benefits and costs” and the “benefits only” accounts of unitization
Amongst the research related to dual-processing models and supportive encoding
strategies, a lot still seems open to question. Some researchers are suggesting that the
mapping of tasks and retrieval processes is not a simple operation. Recent research has
demonstrated the “benefit” of unitization, by encouraging conditions where pairs of stimuli
are integrated into a single depiction, which allows familiarity to contribute at retrieval and
support deficits in recollection. This has been demonstrated within studies across a wide
variety of participant groups, tasks and stimuli (Bastin et al., 2013; Boywitt & Meiser, 2012;
Kroll, Yonelinas, Dobbins, & Frederick, 2002; Naveh-Benjamin, Brav, & Levy, 2007;
Quamme et al., 2002).
Some researchers are proposing that there are two explanations of unitization, the
“benefits and costs” account and the “benefits only” one. The first, the “benefits and costs”
view argues that at retrieval only the unitized whole is accessible to familiarity- not the
individual elements. Consequently, quantifiable “costs” are involved when trying to

remember the individual elements of the initial pair. The disadvantage is a condensed
employment of familiarity for elements from unitized related to non-unitized conditions.
The “benefits-only” account proposes that the representations of each item in a pair, as well
as the unitized “gestalt” are all available at retrieval. No costs are sustained when
remembering the component items.
Presently, there are limited studies and a lack of well-defined behavioral evidence in
regard to these conflicting accounts of unitization. Pilgrim, Murray, and Donaldson (2012)
question in their study whether the “benefits” of unitization at encoding also comes with a
“cost”. They turned to using neural data in their experiment to differentiate between the two
accounts of unitization, by observing the latent costs in the retrieval of single words. They
manipulated unitization during encoding of word pairs; integration of items was encouraged
or discouraged. Event related potentials (ERPs) from a scalp electroencephalogram (EEG)
were used to index recollection and familiarity at retrieval. ERPs are one of the most potent
techniques of dissociating the comparative influences of these processes to recollection
(Donaldson & Curran, 2007). Studies of recognition memory for words show two temporally
and topographically definite ERP effects that are proposed to expose recollection and
familiarity. The early bilateral frontal old-new effect and the later left parietal old-new effect
(Rugg & Curran, 2007) . To gage the impact of familiarity and recollection to retrieval,
during recognition memory they recorded ERPs. Participants were shown and requested to
evaluate whether single words were studied (old) or unstudied (new). They hypothesized that
the single items of the unitized representation would not be as available at retrieval as
elements encoded under non-unitized conditions.
The data exposed selective declines in the neural relationships between familiarity and
individual words initially encoded in unitized word pairs in comparison with non-unitized
word pairs. In conclusion, Pilgrim et al.,( 2012, p 1671) state “The finding reveals a

measurable cost of unitization, suggesting that the nature of to-be-remembered stimuli is
critical in determining whether familiarity contributed to episodic memory”. Again, they
stipulate that more research is needed into the underlying mechanisms of unitization,
specifically in regard to the “benefits and costs” account.
Current findings are lacking in regard to questions such as, is the specific encoding task
critical? Are there levels of unitization, or is it an all or nothing mechanism? Are the
depictions of individual elements purposefully inhibited or not as intensely activated as the
integrated representation? It seems more comparisons across the array of encoding conditions
that encourage stimuli to be processed as an integrated whole are necessary. This will
ultimately improve our understanding in how to best empower familiarity to support retrieval.
Which in turn, will inevitably enable improvements in memory training or rehabilitation for
the aging population.
Socioemotional Selectivity Theory
Socioemotional selectivity theory (SST) postulates that people emphasize and value
more emotionally significant goals as they grow old, and endow more social and cognitive
resources in acquiring them (Laura L Carstensen, Isaacowitz, & Charles, 1999). This swing
in motivation concerning emotional goals instigates emotion regulation or control over
emotions that are expressed and experienced. Goal motivation, memory and attention for
emotional material are forecast to fluctuate by age. Socioemotional selectivity theory
suggests goals are established in time-based contexts. In youth, time is perceived as
expansive and the focus is on the future. Time and energy are invested in information
acquisition, novelty and horizon expansion. As people age they perceive constraints on their
time and more direction is placed upon emotionally meaningful relationships and connections
within the present (Laura L. Carstensen & Mikels, 2005). See Figure 3.


Hashtroudi, Johnson, and Chrosniak (1990) reported that older people, in memory
studies for imagined and real events recalled more information about their feelings and
reflections than about contextual and perceptual details. Despite the classically evidenced
age-related insufficiencies in source memory, in a study by Rahhal, May, and Hasher (2002)
older adults performed better when the information to be remembered was about significant
emotional characteristics of people as opposed to questions regarding the gender of a person.
The accumulating empirical evidence that older adults control emotional experience better is
growing, yet understanding the processes by which this is achieved is deficient.

Figure 3. Idealized Model of Socioemotional Selectivity Theory’s Conception of the Salience of Two Classes
of Social Motives Across the Life span.

Figure 3. From “The Social Context of Emotion” by Laura L Carstensen, Gross, and Fung (1997), Annual
Review of Geriatrics and Gerontology, 17, p 331.

The positivity effect
The “positivity effect” refers to an age-related rise in the preference for positive
instead of negative information in memory and attention (Laura L. Carstensen & Mikels,
2005). This was first considered within the framework of SST, as older adults are more
motivated by goals that relate to emotional fulfillment, SST predicts a processing shift
towards positive material later in life. A meta-analysis by Reed, Chan, and Mikels (2014) of

100 studies of the positivity effect (N=7,129), found the effect reliable. Analyses implied that
older adults revealed a significant processing inclination toward positive (vs. negative)
information; the opposite pattern is shown in younger adults.
A study by Charles, Mather, and Carstensen (2003) examined the hypothesis that
memory for positive and negative images would systematically change with age, older adults
would perform better than younger on memory for positive stimuli. They anticipated age
differences would be more noticeable on the recall than recognition task as it requires more
self-directed processing that may be more persuaded by current goals and motivations.
Participants represented three age groups: young (18-29), middle-aged (41-53) and older
adults (65-80) to examine age trajectories across adulthood. They viewed 32 sequential
images, at 2-s intervals in random order on a computer screen, 16 neutral and 16 emotional –
8 positive and 8 negative. Within each of the emotional valence groups, half were scenes of
people and half were animals, nature scenes or inanimate objects. They were chosen from the
International Affective Picture System (Ito, Cacioppo, & Lang, 1998), a set of pictures where
there are normative emotional valence ratings for each image, on a Likert-type rating scale
ranging from (1)-the most negative to (9)- the most positive. After a distractor task the
subjects were asked to remember as many as possible and then to identify formerly shown
pictures from a set of new and old ones. Data was analyzed using a repeated measures
general linear model, with emotional valence of the picture (i.e., positive, negative or neutral)
as the within-subject factor and age group as the between-subject factor. Results are
illustrated in Figure 4.


Figure 4.

Figure 4. Average number of positive, negative and neutral pictures recalled ,study 1. From “Aging and
Emotional Memory: The Forgettable Nature of Negative Images for Older Adults” by Charles, Mather &
Cartensen (2003), Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 132(2), 310-324. doi: 10.1037/0096-

On the recall task in the study by Charles et al., (2003), middle-aged and older adults
recollected more positive pictures than negative ones, however the younger group recalled
approximately equal quantities of negative and positive pictures. They suggest motivational
age-related shifts, as implied by SST and the positivity effect to have contributed to these
More research is needed to examine encoding of emotional valence within the
neurophysiological and behavioral domains, similar to a study done by Mather et al. (2004).
They used a set of positive, negative or neutral images in a standard recall task presented on a
computer screen; which were repeated again to the same older/younger participants but in
which event-related functional magnetic resonance imaging was used to investigate
activation in the amygdala while viewing the pictures. The results revealed significantly
greater amygdala activation in the older group for positive over negative stimuli.
There is still debate over the robustness of the positivity effect, with many researchers
calling for future investigations needed to extricate the weight of positive valence compared

to other elements (i.e. semantic, arousal level, perceptual) (Tomaszczyk & Fernandes, 2013).
There are various studies with contrary findings, such as by Gruhn, Smith, and Baltes (2005)
who found no age-related emotion priority processing in regard to homogenous –single
valence and heterogeneous- mixed valence, emotionally toned word lists. If memory for
emotional information does remain more intact, the SST framework may have relevance in
regard to ways to present material so that older adults encode, process and retrieve it more
We began this paper observing the dual-processing models and the encoding strategy of
unitization, with findings from numerous studies showing this to be an effective way to
provide environmental support during encoding for older adults. The review of the Bastin et
al., (2013) data revealed that integrating the item and colour to form a new, singular
representation boosted recall in the older group. Notwithstanding the clear evidence that these
strategies improve memory tasks performed in a laboratory setting, further research is needed
into the “affordability” of strategy use within a generalizable everyday context. The
presentation format of information to be remembered seems to make strategy use either more
or less affordable and older adults appear to be quite sensitive to such manipulations. As seen
in the Pilgrim, Murray and Donaldson (2012) study, neural data revealed a retrieval cost in
regard to the individual items before unitization.
We then considered the positivity effect, which is linked to sociemotional selectivity
theory and its compensatory influence on age-related recollection decline. Memory for
emotional stimulus appears to identify as a preserved area of functioning. Data reviewed
from neurophysiological and behavioural studies revealed significantly better recall of
positive imagery by older adults. Given this preservation and motivational maintenance of
emotional working memory, aging adults may encode and process information more

effectively if presented in a positive way. This could be beneficial in regard to presenting
health care messages; yet it could also result in less adequate judgments made if decisions
require negative and positive options. Additional research is needed into cross-cultural
differences to positivity, with non-Western samples appearing in very few studies. More
consistent and selective reporting of measures of background cognitive ability would mean
being able to better examine these as moderators of the positivity effect.
The future of aging research in regard to memory appears to be extending beyond
documenting preservation and decline as individual trajectories, and identifying ways both
processes work in symbiosis. With the demographics of many countries moving towards an
expansion in the 65 years plus age group, more memory training and education interventions
will need to be developed and administered. Improvements in educating older adults, with the
delivery of factual information about aging and memory; will instill positive beliefs about
control over memory. By combining theoretically based strategy support and educational
information, it is probable that older adults would experience improved objective memory
performance. To conclude, with a pertinent quote from The Milk Train Doesn’t stop Here
Anymore by Tennessee Williams :
“Life is all memory except for the one present moment that goes by so quick you can hardly
catch it going”.




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