The persistence of memory Christie Chung on aging and cognition Whether you’re likely to describe gray hair as distinguished or dowdy, the changes to our bodies and brains as we age are inevitable. Some would even say depressing. But there’s one change we can look forward to. Research shows that as we get older we experience fewer negative emotions. It’s not that we don’t retain sad memories; we simply choose not to retrieve them. The phenomenon is called the positivity effect. “Older people do tend to regulate their emotions better,” says Associate Professor of Psychology Christie Chung. “The brain shrinks and there is some loss in short term memory. Perhaps we don’t want to use those limited resources to remember negative things.” Chung, who joined Mills faculty in 2007 and directs the Mills Cognition Laboratory, studies changes in emotional memory throughout aging. Her research is now focused on asking, Does this effect exist across cultures, and does it influence an older person’s attitude about aging itself? Collaborating with student research assistants to select test participants, conduct interviews, and process results, Chung has interviewed older adults in the United States, China, Hong Kong, and Afghanistan, and has found that the positivity effect is widespread, but not universal. Her two most recently published scholarly articles were co-written with student researchers from the Mills Cognition Lab. This year, the International Journal of Aging and Human Development is publishing “A Cross-Cultural Examination of the Positivity Effect in Memory: U.S. vs. China,” which Chung co-authored with Ziyong Lin ’12. Another research assistant, Frishta Sharifi ’08, traveled to Afghanistan to interview elders. Sharifi’s first surprise was that she was not able to find many adults over the age of 70. The second was that she found no positivity effect at all among those interviewed. “It was very sad. The war likely affected older adults’ Christie Chung
way of processing emotional memory,” Chung says of the Afghani subjects.
M i l l s Q u a r t e r ly