Assistant Professor of Psychology Jennifer Coane is an expert in the science of memory, studying how we construct false memories, how memory changes as we age, and how to apply cognitive psychology to study techniques. In August 2015 she received a $600,000 scholar award from the James S. McDonnell Foundation for her work in understanding human cognition—a prestigious award the foundation typically gives to scientists at large research universities.

At Colby Coane will continue to study how we integrate knowledge and words into semantic ononemory—the knowledge that’s accessible without context and instantly connected to related information. The words castanet and Casablanca were examples in her grant application, and it’s estimated that the average adult has 50,000 of these entries stored up.

She first became interested in memory as an undergraduate at Illinois State University, where she visited a memory lab in which students were working with word lists and inducing false memories. In 1995 researchers Henry L. Roediger and Kathleen McDermott popularized a false-memory experiment where participants are given a list of words: bed, rest, awake, tired, dream, wake, snooze, blanket, doze, slumber, snore, nap, peace, yawn, drowsy. Then they are asked to remember as many words from the list as possible. About half recall a word that wasn’t on the list but is related—like sleep.

Coane delved into the subject at Illinois State, where she earned her master’s degree, and she explored semantic memory in her doctoral work at Washington University in St. Louis. When she arrived at Colby in 2008 Coane continued her work in false memory research. In 2015 she published two papers in the prestigious journals Memory and Cognition and Aging, Neuropsychology, and Cognition. In the first study, Coane expands on the Deese/Roediger-McDermott paradigm with colleagues at Illinois State University. They tested whether rates of false memories would increase if they supplied participants with words that were not only associated with but also had similar meanings to the word they wanted the participant to falsely remember. Their study was the first to find that this was indeed the case.

In her second study, Coane and fellow researchers at Washington University in St. Louis and Montana State University found that techniques used to reduce false memories (such as warning participants about the potential for false memories) worked just as well for older adults as they did for younger adults. This study builds upon a series of work Coane has done on changes in memory for older adults. It’s a subject can be a scary one for many, she says, but research allows scientists to better understand exactly what cognitive processes break down in aging. “Because it is fairly well-established that older adults show declines in memory relative to younger adults, knowing what strategies or techniques can help older adults perform well is important,” she said.

Coane’s work goes beyond the lab: with a grant from the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement, she presents regularly to the Waterville community about memory and aging and lifestyle changes that can affect memory loss.

Coane also puts her research on memory to use in the classroom. In the first 15 minutes of class she asks students to explain the topics they covered in the previous class. This, Coane says, engages them in a process called “active retrieval,” which has been proven to strengthen recall of a learned fact or concept.

She quizzes students at the end of each class to help them stay on track with the reading and also to challenge them to retrieve information soon after committing it to memory. “Her Cognitive Psychology class is one of the best classes I’ve ever taken,” said Kim Bourne ’16. With the memory techniques, “I really didn’t even have to study for the final.”

Coane’s passion is often passed on to her students. Kate MacNamee ’14, now in graduate school, is continuing research she started with Coane on word aversion (why some people hate the word moist, for example). Kayleigh Monahan ’13 and Miia-Liisa Termonen ’14 have studied the most memorable brand names (non-word brand-names like Toyota turn out to be most memorable) and end up publishing their own studies in academic journals with Coane as the coauthor.

Chelsea Stillman ’10 earned her Ph.D. at Georgetown in lifespan cognitive neuroscience and is doing a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center looking at ways to improve memory and learning through lifestyle changes. A paper Stillman and Coane coauthored about how processing information for survival affected memory was named “paper of the month” by the journal Memory and Cognition.

The 2014 paper centered on research that asked whether older adults remember information better when it is processed for its survival relevance (linked hypothetically to surviving in the wild or moving to a foreign country, for example), as has been determined to be true with younger adults. The conclusion: the survival processing does not provide the same recall benefit to elders.

“When we started doing poster presentations, I was amazed by how some of the other grad students hadn’t had the experience in the lab and in writing and presenting that I did,” Stillman said. “I didn’t realize how much I got out of the experience until I left.”

And how much of that invaluable experience she remembered.

Info image

Image above: Was there another car behind the taxi cab? Did the taxi have hub caps? How does our memory affect our “eyewitness” accounts? Assistant Professor of Psychology Jennifer Coane explores ways our memories are processed.



How good is Your memory?

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  • Study this list of words.

    • Bed
    • Rest
    • Awake
    • Tired
    • Dream
    • Wake
    • Snooze
    • Blanket
    • Doze
    • Slumber
    • Snore
    • Peace
    • Drowsy
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