What is proactive interference, and how can it affect memory formation? Find out the facts in this article that discuss the implications for instructional practice.
What is proactive Interference?
Psychologists have been trying to find out what makes people forget just as much as they are keen to know what makes people remember. Various different theories describing why people forget have been put forwarded.
According to the interference theory, people may fail to retrieve details from their long-term memory because competing 'chunks' of information interfere.
When several pieces of information compete in people’s long-term memory, particularly if details are similar, this results in some information being either hard to remember or totally forgotten.
Proactive interference occurs when previously learned information interferes with learning and remembering new information. This happens because short-term memory can only hold a limited amount of information at a time.
When new information is introduced, it can be difficult for the brain to process and store it if too much information is already competing for space in short-term memory. This is why it's important to actively work to reduce proactive interference by organizing and prioritizing information in a meaningful way.
Research suggests that neural mechanisms play a key role in proactive interference. Specifically, the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for working memory and attention control, may become overloaded when too much information is competing for space.
Additionally, the hippocampus, which is involved in long-term memory, may also be affected by proactive interference. By understanding these neural mechanisms, we can develop strategies to reduce proactive interference and improve our ability to process and retain new information.
Proactive interference and memory
Proactive interference occurs when a person is not able to remember new information because old information stops the retrieval of new information. In simpler words, proactive inhibition occurs when old information interferes with new information retrieval.
Older information is mostly more strongly stored in long-term memory as the person has revisited and rehearsed older information for longer.
Consequently, it is easier to recall older information than current memories. Research shows that it is possible for a person to reduce proactive inhibition by rehearsing new information through recitation or testing.
Interestingly, as people grow older, proactive interference becomes more apparent. The number of memories saved in an older person's memory span is much more than a younger individual's, increasing the individual differences in the chances of occurrence of proactive interference.
Previous studies show that peripheral processes (motor execution and encoding time) and recognition memory worsen with the increase in age differences between individuals.
FMRI and recent-probes tasks can be used to assess the brain mechanisms responsible for resolving proactive interference i.e. left anterior prefrontal cortex and the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex.
Examples of Proactive Interference
One may experience proactive interference every time his old practices interfere with learning something new.
Proactive interference is a common phenomenon in the field of memory and cognition. For instance, if you learned to drive a manual car and then switched to an automatic, you may find yourself struggling to remember not to use the clutch.
This is because the old memory of driving a manual car is interfering with the new memory of driving an automatic. By understanding the concept of proactive interference, you can take steps to minimize its impact on your ability to learn and retain new information.
Another example of proactive interference can be seen in short-term memory. When trying to remember a new phone number, a person may struggle if they have previously memorized a different phone number that is similar in sequence.
The old memory interferes with the ability to recall new information. To combat this, one can try to actively forget the old information or use mnemonic devices to help differentiate between similar memories.
Proactive interference examples
Example 1: Writing Dates of a New Year
One of the most common examples of proactive interference is seen during the first few weeks or even months of a new year.
During this time, people tend to write the dates of the previous year because they have frequently rehearsed the past year and for them, it is easier to recall the previous year than the new year. Hence, their memories of the previous year interfere with their ability to remember that they have to write the date according to new the year.
Example 2: Remembering rules of a New Language
If a person is trying to learn French, but has already learned German, he may frequently find themself using German words instead of French words. Or, if a native English speaker tries to learn Italian in control conditions he may confuse English language rules with that of Italian. Their old memories of English words in their mind interfere with the new learning, making it more difficult to remember the rules of Italian.
Example 3: Recalling the names of Students
Teachers frequently face problems in remembering the new students' names and confuse new students names with the names of students they had in past years. Even teachers with many years of teaching experience may confuse the names of students with names of their parents or siblings!
Example 4: Travelling to another country
When traveling to a new country, people are likely to face difficulty while using the foreign currency. It is because their previous knowledge of using native currency interferes with their ability to effectively use a new currency.
Example 5: Shopping of Grocery
A person may face difficulty, in case of changing his diet, and learning a new list of things to purchase at the store. During grocery shopping, old purchases memory may interfere with remembering the new things in the shopping list, making it hard to remember new names while grocery shopping in the store.
Reducing the impact of proactive interference on memory
The following steps might help us to decrease the impact of proactive interference in every life:
- Pay attention to new information
One may reduce the effect of proactive interference on memory and cognition by paying due attention to the new information. In control conditions, this can be achieved through active learning or testing.
Active learning is an overarching strategy for instruction which involves active engagement with the study materials through discussion, problem-solving, case studies, application reviewing, and other ways.
Previous experiments suggest that it improves the performance of the brain and offers an opportunity to connect old information with new information. Hence, it is suggested to study the target concept repeatedly until achieving a mastery of the topic or the skill.
- Adding novelty
To avoid proactive interference, it is suggested to add novelty to the new information that needs to be retained. One may make a mnemonic, song, or rhyme to add uniqueness to the topic in one’s memory.
It may become easier to recall new information by making it memorable and different from past memories.
This is because proactive interference occurs when past memories interfere with the retrieval of new information from short-term memory. By adding novelty to new information, you can create a distinct memory that is less likely to be confused with past memories and, therefore, easier to recall.
This can be done through the use of unique images, associations with personal experiences, or even just changing the format in which the information is presented. Adding novelty can be especially helpful in situations where you need to remember a lot of new information in a short amount of time.
Overlearning can be applied to new information to reduce interference. Overlearning means to practise the new learning repeatedly, even after mastering the topic. Frequent practise can help support overlearning and improves chances of better retention of current information.
Practising can be used to make sure that the information stays in long-term memory and improves recollection and learning performance.
However, overlearning can also have its limitations. One study found that overlearning can actually decrease visual working memory capacity, which is the ability to hold and manipulate visual information in short-term memory.
This means that while overlearning can be helpful in retaining information, it's important also to give your short-term memory time to rest and process the information in order to maintain a healthy balance.
What is Retroactive Interference?
Many researchers studied the neural mechanisms and individual differences between retroactive and proactive interference. Retroactive interference occurs when a person cannot recall old memories or fails to retrieve details from their short-term memory, as new memories stop their retrieval. In basic terms, new information interferes with the old information retrieval.
Previous trials suggest that inhibitory control associated with retroactive interference may disrupt learning. In an experimental trial, students learned some Japanese - German word pairs, and then they were given different language word pairs as an interference task.
The trial participants were provided with the interference task after a few minutes of the learning task. According to the findings of experiments, the interference task led to a decrease in learning up to 20% irrespective of how long the practice trial group waited between being presented with both tasks.
These experimental trials show that interference may have a negative impact on memory consolidation.
Some examples of Retroactive Interference in people’s everyday life are as follows:
- A professional actor learns a new monologue for each play. They may forget the monologue they learned for an old play.
- A university student learns a lot of theories of his relevant field in each semester. But, as he learns new theories in his current semester, he has trouble recalling the theories he had learned in previous semesters.
- An employee learns names of his new colleagues after joining a new company. Then a time comes when he finds it difficult to recall names of his co-workers from his previous job and incorrectly call old colleagues with the names of his colleagues at his new company.
What is Hermann Ebbinghaus's forgetting curve?
In 1885, a German psychologist, Hermann Ebbinghaus proposed the theory of decay for the first time. The decay theory states that a memory trace is developed at the time of the formation of a new theory.
Hermann Ebbinghaus's forgetting curve is a theory that explains how memory retention declines over time when there is no attempt to retain the information. According to Ebbinghaus, memory retention drops rapidly within the first few hours after learning new information and then levels off.
This curve suggests that without any effort to retain information, we forget most of what we learn within a short period of time. However, the study mentioned in the context suggests that proactive interference can slow down the decay of memory traces and potentially improve memory retention over time.
Short-term memory plays a significant role in proactive interference. The forgetting curve shows that information we learn is quickly forgotten without any effort to retain it. However, when we actively try to remember information, it can be stored in our short-term memory.
By actively working to retain information and reducing proactive interference, we can improve our memory retention over time.
Previous experiments suggest that with the passage of time, these memory traces fade out and finally disappear. If a person does not retrieve and rehearse information, it will eventually be discarded.
The Decay Theory has been a topic of debate among researchers for years. Some trials have supported the theory, while others have found evidence to contradict it.
One study published in the Journal of Memory and Language found that proactive interference, or the interference of previously learned information on new information, can slow down the decay of memory traces. If you continue to rehearse and retrieve information, it may not fade away as quickly as previously thought.
Dual Task Interference
People face difficulty performing two relatively simple tasks at the same time. In modern times, dual-task situations are increasingly common, such as people use mobile phones while driving, cooking, or writing.
Dual-task interference or cognitive-motor interference occurs when the simultaneously performing a motor and cognitive processes leads to a decline in performance in both or just one task. There are a number of theories and previous experiments describing the Dual task interference in humans such as the cross-talk and the capacity-sharing theories.
One explanation for dual-task interference is related to short-term memory. When performing two tasks simultaneously, the brain must divide its attention between them, which can lead to a depletion of short-term memory resources.
This can result in difficulty in retaining information related to both tasks, and can ultimately lead to a decline in performance. It's important to note that the degree of interference can vary depending on the complexity of the tasks and the individual's cognitive abilities.
Output interference defines the process in which accuracy lowers in an episodic test of memory. Previous experiments demonstrate that the Output inference in sequential recall leads to a reduction in intrusion and correct responses and an increase in failed responses in the memory test.
In order to better understand the effects of output interference, researchers have conducted studies using positive trials. These trials involve presenting participants with a list of items to remember, and then testing their memory by asking them to recall the items in order.
By manipulating the level of output interference, researchers can observe the impact on the number of correct responses and failed responses. These studies have shown that output interference can significantly decrease accuracy in memory tests, highlighting the importance of minimizing interference in learning and memory processes.
A false memory is different from a proactive and retroactive interference because it is a recollection that appears real in a person’s mind but is partially or totally fabricated. An example of a false memory is thinking that a person forgot to lock the door before leaving home.
Misattribution of the actual source of the information or misinformation are the factors leading to false memory. Current knowledge and other memories may also interfere with the creation of a new memory, causing the false or incorrect recollection of an event.
Short-term memory can also play a role in false memory. When we are exposed to new information, it is temporarily stored in our short-term memory before being transferred to long-term memory. However, if we are presented with similar information shortly after, it can interfere with the initial memory formation and lead to confusion and false recollection.
This is why it's important to pay attention to the details and context of new information to avoid the creation of false memories.
Critiques of proactive interference
A lot of psychological review research has been carried out to study the impacts of proactive and retroactive interference. But, there are some problems with these theories.
Most trials on interference theory occur in a lab involving word memory tasks. In the real world, people do not perform word memory tasks frequently. Due to this, most psychological review research on proactive interference & retroactive interference may not be applicable to the real world.
However, there have been positive trials that support the existence of proactive interference in real-world scenarios. For example, individuals who learn a new language may experience proactive interference from their previous language, making it harder for them to recall new vocabulary.
Additionally, individuals who frequently change jobs may experience proactive interference when trying to remember new job responsibilities. While there may be critiques of interference theory in certain contexts, there is evidence to suggest that proactive interference can have real-world implications.
Further Reading on Proactive Interference
Here are four key studies on proactive interference. These studies provide insights into proactive interference and its impact on memory performance, short-term retention, and cognitive development, with applications ranging from understanding brain mechanisms to improving learning strategies in language learners.
1. Developmental change in proactive interference by R. Kail (2002)
Summary: This study shows that proactive interference decreases from ages 4 to 13, with younger children exhibiting less accurate short-term memory recall, suggesting changes in brain mechanisms related to memory performance.
2. Intratrial proactive interference in pigeon short-term memory: Manipulation of stimulus dimension and dimensional similarity by D. S. Grant (1982)
Summary: The research demonstrates robust proactive interference in pigeons' short-term memory, regardless of stimulus dimension, affecting their visual working memory capacity and reaction time.
3. The critical role of retrieval processes in release from proactive interference by K. Bäuml & Oliver Kliegl (2013)
Summary: This study emphasizes the role of retrieval processes in reducing proactive interference, leading to focused memory search and decreased response latencies, relevant to neurobiological mechanisms in memory tasks.
4. Implicit Proactive Interference, Age, and Automatic Versus Controlled Retrieval Strategies by Simay Ikier, Lixia Yang, L. Hasher (2008)
Summary: This study indicates that proactive interference in implicit memory is more harmful for older adults, with controlled retrieval processes being effective primarily for younger adults, affecting semantic memory and dual-task interference.