Highlighting Faculty Member Alan Castel
Date published: 5/4/2015
Memory can change in a variety of interesting ways as we get older, but it doesn’t simply get worse. I am interested in how certain aspects of memory are impaired, enhanced or maintained in old age, and to what degree people are aware of principles that guide memory (a form of metacognition).
For example, are older adults aware of how memory changes, and can they then use specific strategies to compensate for memory impairments? Are older adults good at focusing on what is important, as they know they can’t remember all the details? Are students aware of factors that influence memory performance, and can people accurately predict their own memory performance? Can younger and older adults selectively remember important information, at the expense of less important information? What can older adults tell us about how to focus on what is important? These questions have both important theoretical and applied aspects, and my research program seeks to examine underlying mechanisms regarding age-related changes in attention, metamemory and memory performance, and to develop and assess potential applications of that research.
My memory and lifespan cognition lab at UCLA consists of a super team of undergraduate and graduate students. Our research has shown things like, despite seeing the Apple logo many times, we often misremember it, and that we fail to remember a fire extinguisher that we see every day. Older adults, despite having some memory impairments, have very good memory for grocery prices, things they are very curious about, and important things like allergens that could be potentially fatal to a child. We also study how people attempt to remember important names, locations of frequently used items, the balance of a bank account, and critical information about the side effects of taking certain medication. Currently, we are interested in how people decide what information should be stored in personal memory, rather than being off-loaded onto electronic devices, or accessed on the Internet, and how this differs for younger and older adults.
When I was in high school, I could memorize many things by using elaborate stories (such as the periodic table in chemistry class), despite having very little deeper understanding about chemistry. In my first year of college, after taking Introduction to Psychology, I uncovered the world of cognitive psychology, and I was hooked. I loved the simple in-class demonstrations and ways our mind can play tricks on us. Much to my parents surprise (and perhaps shock), I changed majors, and it was the best career choice I have ever made--other than perhaps coming to UCLA! I still enjoy doing simple demonstration experiments that illustrate the strengths and weaknesses about memory, and how memory doesn’t just get worse with age, but rather changes in ways that may reflect how our goals shift as we age.
I grew up in Canada, and received my PhD from the University of Toronto in 2004. I was then a post-doctoral researcher at Washington University in St. Louis, and kept moving west, coming to UCLA in 2006. I am married with three wonderful children, who teach me about the pleasures and challenges of development. My daughter recently told me that I shouldn’t talk to people about my memory, “because yesterday you forgot and you brushed my teeth with my sister’s toothbrush”. I am constantly amazed by how we remember, reflect, and think about the world, and how this changes as we grow.