Manhattanville Seminar at The Osborn: “How Memory Works”

~ By Jennifer Christensen

Dr. Julie Higgins, Associate Professor of Psychology at Manhattanville College, taught a seminar at The Osborn last week entitled, “How Memory Works.”  Higgins is a scholar of Cognitive Psychology and an expert in memory, cognitive aging, and cognitive neuroscience.

The seminar is part of The Manhattanville College Faculty Lecture Series offered to residents of The Osborn. Upcoming lectures include: “Multiraciality as a Field of Study,” by Hephzibah Strmic-Pawl, Ph.D., “Gun Control Debate: The National Rifle Association versus The American Psychological Association,” by George Schreer, Ph.D., as well as lectures by Lori Soderlind, M.F.A., Director of the Creative Writing Program, and “Cross-Cultural Mathematics: Teaching Origami and Games in China” by Paul Ellis, Ph.D, Associate Professor of Math and Computer Science.

The Dynamics of Memory

Dr. Higgins spoke before a full house of residents and staff in The Osborn’s Independent Living community. In describing how memory works, she focused on the three stages of memory: information acquisition, information retention and information retrieval.

“Each of the three stages of memory involve very complex cognitive processes. When these processes are successful, we are capable of impressive memory feats,” her handout explained. “We can retain memories over long periods of time, such as remembering classmates’ faces decades after we have graduated. We can also remember large quantities of information, such as the huge lexicon of words required to be fluent in spoken language.”

Word retrieval becomes more challenging as people get older. The key to success, according to Dr. Higgins, is to pay careful attention when being introduced to a new person. Gathering different pieces of information about the person can provide additional cues that help with retrieval.

Context is another factor; Dr. Higgins showed data from a research study that examined how much more effective retrieval is when the context for the retrieval is the same as the context in which the memory is formed. One can mentally re-create the context to aid in recall.

“Paying attention is important to the memory process called binding. To create a memory, different pieces of information need to be joined together, like the name and the face. From a psychological perspective, activating one of these features is likely to elicit any features that are bound to it.” She also emphasized the importance of getting adequate sleep for consolidating these pieces of information.

Slowing The Progression of Dementia

Dr. Higgins talked about findings in the field of cognitive neuroscience regarding the parts of the brain that are involved in encoding, storing and retrieving memories. The hippocampus plays a central role in the process of encoding; memory storage and retrieval is the role of the cortex.

Alzheimer’s Disease is caused by amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles that attack the neurons of the brain. Early diagnosis is critical to identifying the kind of dementia and applying appropriate interventions. While there is no cure at this time, Dr. Higgins stressed the importance of early intervention to slow its progression and help patients maintain their quality of life longer.

Residents at The Osborn have many opportunities to engage in intellectual, physical and social activity through the The Manhattanville Faculty Lecture Series, the WellSpring program and other resident-lead activities. For more information, visit

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