Identifying age-invariant and age-limited mechanisms for enhanced memory performance: Insights from self-referential processing in younger and older adults

Trelle, A.N., Henson, R.N., & Simons, J.S. (2015). Psychology and Aging, 30, 324-333.

Self-referential processing has been identified as a possible tool for supporting effective encoding processes in the elderly population. However, the importance of self-reference per se, relative to the increase in meaningful elaboration normally associated with self-reference instructions, remains unclear. The present study sought to explore this issue further by examining self-referential encoding strategies that inherently involve more extensive stimulus elaboration: episodic autobiographical memory (AM) retrieval and semantic AM retrieval. These were compared to an analogous task involving retrieval of general semantic knowledge, as well as traditional binary self-referential and semantic encoding judgments. We found that both AM retrieval and general semantic retrieval at encoding resulted in substantial enhancements to recall and recognition memory of concrete nouns relative to binary encoding judgments across both age groups. Furthermore, older adults exhibited larger benefits from this additional elaboration than did younger adults, leading to elimination of age-related deficits in recognition memory. However, younger adults showed an additional boost to subsequent memory following episodic, relative to semantic, AM retrieval during free recall that was not exhibited by older adults. This may be due to greater demands on frontally mediated control processes and cognitive resources associated with the use of this strategy. Taken together, the results suggest that the mnemonic benefits associated with self-referential processing vary substantially depending on the specific nature of the encoding strategy, and suggest that, under certain conditions, semantic processing and self-referential processing are equally effective in mitigating age-related deficits in memory performance.