Episodic Memory

One day while I was visiting my friends Joan and John’s shared apartment, I witnessed the couple become involved in a dispute; a very trivial one at that. Joan boldly proclaimed that women have a better episodic memory than men. John obviously disagreed, firing back that men are the ones with the better memory. The two got into a heated debate and after seeing that neither party would budge, they turned to me for an explanation of the differences in episodic memory between men and women. Luckily for them, I was an appropriate mediator for this debate, having just read authors Agneta Herlitz and Jenny Rehnman’s article “Sex Differences in Episodic Memory” that discusses these differences.

They gathered information about how the two sexes experience episodic memory as well as how it shapes their actions respectively. In general, everyone possesses a working episodic memory that is used to store personal experiences in life that took place at a certain point in time. However, the extent to which we benefit from these memories can differ not only from person to person but also male to female. For example, the article reads, “Throughout the life-span, verbal episodic-memory tasks yield differences favoring women. In contrast, episodic-memory tasks requiring visuospatial processing result in differences favoring men” (Herlitz & Rehnman, Abstract).

It would seem that both sexes have the means of pulling rank when it comes to episodic memory. Therefore, the only way to prove which gender has even the slightest more advantage is to test both men and women’s ability to recall information in different scenarios. One example being a study done on 1,000 adult males and females, evaluating how well they could perform on a number of tasks exercising their episodic memory. Researchers used a d scale to calculate the results, the difference between men and women on one of the word-recall tasks being d = .25. In short, results showed that roughly 60% of women on average performed at a higher level than men on these tasks. These results clearly show a difference favoring women and while one can argue that this is just one study, it’s also mentioned that other studies using similar methods were done and more often than not, women were found to have better scores on these memory tests than men.

And while this is clearly not enough evidence to jump to conclusions, this information can potentially be hinting at women having an advantage when it comes to episodic memory. However, there may be a difference in results when it comes to verbal tasks versus visuospatial tasks. It’s accurate to say that men tend to perform at a higher level than women on visuospatial tasks and there are results, differing from that of verbal tasks, to agree with this statement. To illustrate, the article shows one study where participants were given the challenge of remembering the route they walked through a maze with virtually no outside information provided. Results showed large differences when it came to completing the task favoring men compared to the smaller differences typically found in similar tasks when verbal information is given to boost one’s memory.

Based on this, one can infer that women only have a chance at being considered competition to men in visuospatial memory tasks with a verbal aid of information. Be that as it may, studies have also shown that even in a male dominated area of memory, women have been able to outperform men on tasks involving visuospatial memory such as face-recognition tasks. Researchers hypothesized that only by using their verbal skills would women successfully be able to encode a number of faces shown to them on a screen. However, it was found that women recognized more faces than men did with or without the aid of external verbal cues.

Another factor to take into account when researching sex differences is the impact of the differences across one’s life span. Researchers have measured how education and public exposure influence sex differences in memory. A study was done in which these differences were compared between adults from Bangladesh and Sweden that were not only a mix of male and female but also illiterate and literate. Men overall performed better at visuospatial tasks and women at verbal tasks, further proving what’s already been found about the strengths of either gender in memory. But even so, it was also found that illiterate Bangladeshi men were not only superior in visuospatial memory but also in general intelligence. However, this is mainly because Bangladeshi women have virtually no access to the outside world. Forced to live a good portion of their lives locked away from learning resources that men have access to, the women are understandably less intelligent and, in turn, wouldn’t perform as well on tasks.

Thus, the results don’t provide insight into sex differences in memory and instead merely indicate that cognitive sex differences can be linked to sociocultural factors. Furthermore, when it comes to addressing Joan and John’s dispute, I would offer them advice based on the information I’ve gained from the article. During the argument, Joan was able to prove her side by using her verbal episodic memory to recall what she and John said to each other when they met for the first time and John is able to combat that by using his visuospatial episodic memory to recall the route they once took from the very first apartment they owned together to their favorite restaurant.

Both parties have superiority over one another at some point when it comes to episodic memory, but as of now, neither gender has an overall better memory. When it comes to memory, men and women alike will lack in some aspect and while some women in studies have proven to have better verbal and visuospatial memory than men, this is not the case in the vast majority of women. Using a small percentage of women to represent the entire gender is not rational and certainly doesn’t prove that women have a better episodic memory than men. Also, a person may have the potential to have a more complex memory but that potential can be stunted due to their environment and/or lack of motivation to enhance their memory. Moreover, I would inform the couple that neither of them are right and that more research involving larger, more diverse groups of men and women needs to be done before this “battle of the sexes” can accurately be resolved.    

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