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Space and Memory

 “Where” Tells us “What”

One of the most important features of a memory is where the experience took place. Without knowing “where,” it is difficult to know “who,” “what,” and when.” In a study with 4-year-olds, we tested whether information about “where” was sufficiently powerful that it would help children remember other features of past events. Children visited the laboratory and took part in unique activities in each of four different locations. One week later, the children came back to the lab and we asked them to tell us what they remembered about the activities they had done a week earlier. In one condition, we “cued” the children by providing them information about where the activity had taken place—“The last time you were here, you solved something in the computer room. What did you solve?” In another condition, we did not provide any location information: “The last time you were here you solved something. What did you solve?” As illustrated in the figure, the children had higher levels of memory for “what” when they were cued with “where.” The present research adds to a small body of literature on children’s memory for the location in which they personally experienced specific events. It tells us that even at the ripe young age of 4 years, information about “what” and “where” are bound together in memory. You can read more about this study in Bauer, Stewart, White, & Larkina (2016).


Knowing Where you Stand, Even in a Crowd

One of the frustrating—but highly predictable—aspects of memory is that it fades over time. In fact, in most cases, we initially forget a lot, quickly. Yet sometimes, when we are “cued” with information about where something took place, we can remember more about those seemingly forgotten events (see above for this effect even in young children). This suggests that information about location has a privileged status in memory. To put that idea to a test, we took advantage of an annual tradition at Emory University.


Every year, when new students come to Emory University, all 1300 of them gather on the campus quadrangle and we take their picture as they stand in numbers that reflect their expected year of graduation. Because this tradition has gone on for several years, we have photographs that were taken in 2016 for the class of 2020, in 2015 for the class of 2019, in 2014 for the class of 2018, and so forth. To find out whether people remember where they stood in the picture, we “doctor” the photographs so that all of the identifying information is removed. As shown in the figure, all that is left are white circles indicating the faces in the crowd. We then ask students to “find themselves” in the altered versions of the photographs.


We have found that students are very good at this task, finding themselves even when it has been years since the photograph was taken. Even more outstanding, although memory for location does not decline over time, memory for other aspects of the event, such as the time the photograph was taken, exhibits the expected pattern of rapid forgetting (see figure). This pattern is consistent with the suggestion that memory for “where” has a privileged status in memory. In ongoing research, we are pursuing this interesting finding.