Memory & Cognition

, Volume 45, Issue 8, pp 1306–1318 | Cite as

Breaking down unitization: Is the whole greater than the sum of its parts?

  • Maria C. D’Angelo
  • Alix Noly-Gandon
  • Arber Kacollja
  • Morgan D. Barense
  • Jennifer D. Ryan


Memory impairments are often observed in aging. Specifically, older adults have difficulty binding together disparate elements (relational memory). We have recently shown that a cognitive strategy known as unitization can mitigate impaired relational learning in the transverse patterning task (TP) in both amnesia and healthy aging. This strategy allows items to be fused together through an interaction such that one item acts upon another. In the context of TP, unitization is comprised of three component processes: (1) fusion, (2) motion, and (3) semantic comprehension of action/consequence sequences. Here, we examine which of these components are sufficient to mitigate age-related impairments. Four groups of older adults were given either the full unitization strategy or one of the three component strategies. Each group of older adults showed impairments in memory for the relations among items under standard training instructions relative to a threshold that marks learning of a winner-take-all rule (elemental threshold). However, participants who were given either the full unitization strategy or the action/consequence-only strategy showed improved performance, which was maintained following the 1-hour delay. Therefore, semantically rich action/consequence interactions are sufficient to mitigate age-related relational memory impairments.


Memory Aging Unitization Fusion Semantic comprehension 



This research was supported in part by a postdoctoral fellowship from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) awarded to M.C.D. as well as support from the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long Term Care through the Ontario Research Coalition of Research Institutes/Centres on Health & Aging (ORC) to M.C.D. This work was also supported by CIHR Operating Grants awarded to J.D.R. (No. MOP-126003) and M.D.B. (No. MOP-115148), and by Tier II Canada Research Chair Awards awarded to J.D.R. and M.D.B. The authors state that they do not have any conflicts of interest to declare.


  1. Addis, D. R., Cheng, T., Roberts, R. P., & Schacter, D. L. (2011). Hippocampal contributions to the episodic simulation of specific and general future events. Hippocampus, 21(10), 1045–1052. doi: 10.1002/hipo.20870 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  2. Ahmad, F. N., Fernandes, M., & Hockley, W. E. (2015). Improving associative memory in older adults with unitization. Aging, Neuropsychology, and Cognition, 22(4), 452–472. doi: 10.1080/13825585.2014.980216
  3. Bader, R., Mecklinger, A., Hoppstadter, M., & Meyer, P. (2010). Recognition memory for one-trial-unitized word pairs: Evidence from event-related potentials. NeuroImage, 50(2), 772–781.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  4. Bastin, C., Diana, R. A., Simon, J., Collette, F., Yonelinas, A. P., & Salmon, E. (2013). Associative memory in aging: The effect of unitization on source memory. Psychology & Aging, 28(1), 275–283.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Bower, G. H. (1970). Imagery as a relational organizer in associative learning. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 9(5), 529–533. doi: 10.1016/S0022-5371(70)80096-2 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Cermak, L.S. (1975). Imagery as an aid to retrieval for Korsakoff patients. Cortex, 11, 163–169Google Scholar
  7. Cohen, N. J. (2015). Navigating life. Hippocampus, 25(6), 704–708. doi: 10.1002/hipo.22443 CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  8. D’Angelo, M. C., Kacollja, A., Rabin, J. S., Rosenbaum, R. S., & Ryan, J. D. (2015). Unitization supports lasting performance and generalization on a relational memory task: Evidence from a previously undocumented developmental amnesic case. Neuropsychologia, 77, 185–200. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2015.07.025 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  9. D’Angelo, M. C., Smith, V. M., Kacollja, A., Zhang, F., Binns, M. A., Barense, M. D., & Ryan, J. D. (2016). The effectiveness of unitization in mitigating age-related relational learning impairments depends on existing cognitive status. Aging, Neuropsychology, and Cognition, 23(6), 667–690. doi: 10.1080/13825585.2016.1158235 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Delhaye, E., & Bastin, C. (2016). The impact of aging on associative memory for preexisting unitized associations. Aging, Neuropsychology, and Cognition.. doi: 10.1080/13825585.2016.1263725 Google Scholar
  11. Driscoll, I., Hamilton, D. A., Petropoulos, H., Yeo, R. A., Brooks, W. M., Baumgartner, R. N., & Sutherland, R. J. (2003). The aging hippocampus: Cognitive, biochemical and structural findings. Cerebral Cortex, 13(12), 1344–1351.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  12. Duff, M. C., & Brown-Schmidt, S. (2012). The hippocampus and the flexible use and processing of language. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 6, 69. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2012.00069 CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  13. Eichenbaum, H., & Cohen, N. J. (2001). From conditioning to conscious recollection: Memory systems of the brain. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  14. Ericsson, K. A., & Kintsch, W. (1995). Long term working memory. Psychological Review, 102, 211–245.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  15. Glisky, E. L., Schacter, D. L., & Tulving, E. (1986). Learning and retention of computer-related vocabulary in memory-impaired patients: method of vanishing cues. Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, 8(3), 292–312. doi: 10.1080/01688638608401320
  16. Graf, P., & Schacter, D. L. (1989). Unitization and grouping mediate dissociations in memory for new associations. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 15(5), 930.Google Scholar
  17. Kan, I. P., Keane, M. M., Martin, E., Parks-Stamm, E. J., Lewis, L., & Verfaellie, M. (2011). Implicit memory for novel associations between pictures: effects of stimulus unitization and aging. Memory & Cognitition, 39, 778–790.Google Scholar
  18. Kintsch, W. (1988). The role of knowledge in discourse comprehension: A construction integration model. Psychological Review, 95, 163–182.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  19. Konkel, A., Warren, D. E., Duff, M. C., Tranel, D. N., & Cohen, N. J. (2008). Hippocampal amnesia impairs all manner of relational memory. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 2, 15. doi: 10.3389/neuro.09.015.2008 CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  20. McGee, R. (1980). Imagery and recognition memory: The effects of relational organization. Memory and Cognition, 8(5), 394–399. doi: 10.3758/BF03211135 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  21. Moscovitch, M. (2008). The hippocampus as a “stupid”, domain-specific module: Implications for theories of recent and remote memory, and of imagination. Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology, 62(1), 62–79. doi: 10.1037/1196-1961.62.1.62 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  22. Moses, S. N., Ostreicher, M. L., Rosenbaum, R. S., & Ryan, J. D. (2008). Successful transverse patterning in amnesia using semantic knowledge. Hippocampus, 18(2), 121–124. doi: 10.1002/hipo.20378 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  23. Moses, S. N., Ostreicher, M. L., & Ryan, J. D. (2010). Relational framework improves transitive inference across age groups. Psychological Research, 74(2), 207–218. doi: 10.1007/s00426-009-0244-0 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  24. Nasreddine, Z. S., Phillips, N. A., Bédirian, V., Charbonneau, S., Whitehead, V., Collin, I., … & Chertkow, H. (2005). The Montreal Cognitive Assessment, MoCA: A brief screening tool for mild cognitive impairment. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, 53(4), 695–699. doi:10.1111/j.1532-5415.2005.53221.xGoogle Scholar
  25. Naveh-Benjamin, M., Guez, J., Kilb, A., & Reedy, S. (2004). The associative memory deficit of older adults: Further support using face-name associations. Psychology and Aging, 19(3), 541–546. doi: 10.1037/0882-7974.19.3.541 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  26. Old, S. R., & Naveh-Benjamin, M. (2008). Differential effects of age on item and associative measures of memory: A meta-analysis. Psychology and Aging, 23(1), 104–118. doi: 10.1037/0882-7974.23.1.104 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  27. Ostreicher, M. L., Moses, S. N., Rosenbaum, R. S., & Ryan, J. D. (2010). Prior experience supports new learning of relations in aging. The Journal of Gerontology. Psychological Sciences, 65B(1), 32–41. doi: 10.1093/geronb/gbp081 Google Scholar
  28. Paivio, A. (1991). Dual coding theory: Retrospect and current status. Canadian Journal of Psychology, 45(3), 255–287.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Parks, C. M., & Yonelinas, A. P. (2015). The importance of unitization for familiarity-based learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 41(3), 881–903.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  30. Quamme, J. R., Yonelinas, A. P., & Norman, K. A. (2007). Effect of unitization on associative recognition in amnesia. Hippocampus, 17(3), 192–200. doi: 10.1002/hipo.20257
  31. Rickard, T. C., & Grafman, J. (1998). Losing their configural mind. Amnesic patients fail on transverse patterning. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 10(4), 509–524.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  32. Rickard, T. C., Verfaellie, M., & Grafman, J. (2006). Transverse patterning and human amnesia. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 18(10), 1723–1733. doi: 10.1162/jocn.2006.18.10.1723 CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  33. Ryan, J. D., Althoff, R. R., Whitlow, S., & Cohen, N. J. (2000). Amnesia is a deficit in relational memory. Psychological Science, 11(6), 454–461.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  34. Ryan, J. D., Leung, G., Turk-Browne, N. B., & Hasher, L. (2007). Assessment of age-related changes in inhibition and binding using eye movement monitoring. Psychology and Aging, 22(2), 239–250. doi: 10.1037/0882-7974.22.2.239 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  35. Ryan, J. D., Moses, S. N., Barense, M., & Rosenbaum, R. S. (2013). Intact learning of new relations in amnesia as achieved through unitization. Journal of Neuroscience, 33(23), 9601–9613. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0169-13.2013 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  36. Spence, K. W. (1952). The nature of the response in discrimination learning. Psychological Review, 59(1), 89–93.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  37. Watson, H. C., Wilding, E. L., & Graham, K. S. (2012). A role for perirhinal cortex in memory for novel object-context associations. Journal of Neuroscience, 32(13), 4473–4481.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  38. Yonelinas. (1997). Recognition memory ROCs for item and associative information: The contribution of recollection and familiarity. Memory & Cognition, 25(6), 747–763.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Zheng, Z., Li, J., Xiao, F., Ren, W., & He, R. (2016). Unitization improves source memory in older adults: An event-related potential study. Neuropsychologia, 89, 232–244.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Maria C. D’Angelo
    • 1
  • Alix Noly-Gandon
    • 1
  • Arber Kacollja
    • 1
  • Morgan D. Barense
    • 1
    • 2
  • Jennifer D. Ryan
    • 1
    • 2
  1. 1.Rotman Research InstituteBaycrestTorontoCanada
  2. 2.Department of PsychologyUniversity of TorontoTorontoCanada

Personalised recommendations