Long-term memory for nostalgic stimuli across the lifespan: An examination of episodic and semantic memory using naturalistic stimuli presented across three modalities
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Long-term memory for nostalgic stimuli across the lifespan: An examination of episodic and semantic memory using naturalistic stimuli presented across three modalities


Music has been shown to successfully prompt memory retrieval in healthy individuals as well as people with memory disorders. However, it is unclear whether music confers a unique advantage for this purpose, compared to other sensory cues. A possible explanation for this observed effect is the strong emotional and nostalgic grip of music and our repeated exposure to songs over time. We used advertising stimuli representing three isolated modalities (auditory, visual, and verbal) to empirically examine whether musical stimuli (jingles) uniquely promote memory retrieval and induce nostalgia compared to verbal (slogans) and visual (logos) stimuli in healthy adults across the lifespan. In Study 1, participants from three different age groups (young adults: 18 to 30 years of age, middle-aged adults: 31 to 64 years of age, and older adults: 65 years and older) rated jingles, slogans, and logos associated with 383 advertising campaigns to examine the effects of modality and age on subjective ratings of familiarity and nostalgia, and to identify suitable stimuli for Study 2. Exploratory factors, including potential length of exposure to the advertising campaigns and nostalgia-proneness (Routledge et al., 2008), were also included to account for their interaction with our main variables of interest. Advertisements for visual stimuli were rated as more familiar than verbal and auditory stimuli across both age groups as well as within each age group in Study 1. However, auditory musical stimuli were rated as more nostalgic across all participants, which supports prior findings regarding the use of music to evoke nostalgia (e.g., Barrett et al., 2010; Juslin et al., 2008; Batcho, 2009) and provides the first comparison of nostalgia evoked by isolated modalities in advertisements. We also observed an effect of age, such that young adults provided higher nostalgia ratings than older adults. In line with the often cited “positivity effect” (Carstensen & Mikels, 2005; Kennedy, Mather, & Carstensen, 2004), middle-aged adults and older adults provided higher happiness ratings than young adults across modalities, and young adults provided higher sadness ratings across modalities, compared to older adults and middle-aged adults. Lastly, participants who are more prone to experiencing nostalgia, provided higher familiarity and nostalgia ratings, suggesting a general bias toward rating items as more familiar and nostalgic. We examined this further in Study 2 by using nostalgia-proneness to analyze the retention and retrieval of semantic and autobiographical memories. Study 2 expanded on the results from Study 1 by delving into semantic and episodic memory recall as opposed to solely testing familiarity with the advertisements and advertised brands and products. We compared the number of autobiographical memories and correct semantic details (the advertised product and company) retrieved by young adults (18-30 years old) and older adults (65 years or older) in response to 55 advertising campaigns from Study 1 which met a minimum familiarity threshold. We also examined whether jingles prompted richer, more perceptually vivid episodic reminiscence among older adults by analyzing memory content using a modified version of the Autobiographical Interview scoring manual (Levine et al., 2002). Consistent with Study 1, visual stimuli emerged as superior semantic memory cues and older adults retrieved more autobiographical memories in response to logos, compared to jingles and slogans. Age also predicted memory content and retrieval. In line with previous work on the preservation of semantic memory for individuals later in the lifespan (e.g., Levine et al., 2002; Piolino et al., 2002), older adults performed within the young adult range in our semantic memory task. Autobiographical memories provided by young adults contained more internal details and fewer external details compared to older adults. Contrary to previous studies which reported that older adults provide more positive memories than young adults, we did not find an effect of age in this study. However, this may have been a byproduct of data collection during the COVID-19 pandemic. Lastly, we found that more nostalgic products and advertisements evoked more autobiographical memories, as did nostalgia-proneness. This work builds on existing research on aging, modality, nostalgia, and memory while extending these findings to realistic applications, such as marketing and advertising. We also provide promising insights to help identify modalities that can be used in therapeutic interventions to uniquely facilitate autobiographical memory retrieval across the lifespan, and potentially mitigate age-related effects on autobiographical memory.

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