Apple IIe’s help researchers unlock the mysteries of the human mind!

by Phil Shapiro

II Alive Volume 1 Number 1
March / April 1993

Apple IIe computers have long been a favorite of experimental psychology researchers. It’s easy to write short Applesoft BASIC computer programs to present information in a random fashion. And you can use the IIe’s eight slots to hook up all sorts of external electronic devices. (The external devices can either be controlled by the Apple IIe. Or the lie can gather and analyze data generated by the device.) A team of researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, in Berlin, Germany, used Apple lie’s in an experiment examining how older people experience a decline in their memory skills. The experiment specifically examined how a group of older persons could apply mnemonic strategies in helping them remember a list of 30 concrete nouns.

The average age of the subjects in the experiment was 72. As a control, the researchers had a group of twenty-year olds (with an average age of 24) undertake the same memory tasks.

Both groups were informed about the mnemonic technique called the Method of Loci . This age-old mnemonic technique, first described by the ancient Greeks, gets people to pair a list of objects they want to remember with different rooms in a house, or different well-known landmarks . In this study, the researchers had the subjects pair the concrete objects in random list with well-known landmarks around the city of Berlin.

Before the experiment began, all the members of both groups had to memorize the list of landmarks. The list of landmarks was presented in a logical geographical order, so that anyone familiar with the city of Berlin could travel around the city in an easy path to recall the landmarks. Once everyone could recite the 30 landmarks in under 30 seconds, th e actual experiment began.

The computer randomly presented the name of a concrete noun (object) with the name of a well-known landmark. The subjects were given about 20 seconds to form a vivid mental image linking the object with the landmark. Then the next object/landmark pair was displayed on the computer.

Once all thirty objects were displayed, the subjects were asked to recall as many of the objects as possible. (Using the Method of Loci, the person could then sequentially travel around to the landmarks in the city, conjuring up the vivid images they had created during the computer-controlled presentation.) In some cases the subjects were asked to recall the list after a one hour, five hour, or two day interval. This type of memory task, a “serial word recall ,” is common in many memory experiments. Without using a mnemonic devices, it’s almost impossible to remember thirty random objects. But using the Method of Loci, it’s not difficult to remember 20, 25 or even 30 of the objects.

The result of the experiment was not altogether a surprise. The younger persons were better able to compose the sorts of vivid images that allow the Method of Loci to work. The group of older persons still benefited a lot by using the mnemonic strategies. But the performance of the older group was substantially below the performance of the younger group. People in the Apple II using community don ‘t hear much about the many uses of Apple II’s by scientific researchers. The software the researchers use is usually custom made for their experiment. And the results are usually published in academic journals that are not widely read.

But even in the 1990′ s, the Apple II remains a favorite tool for many types of scientific research. It’s an inexpensive computer that’s easy to program. Leafing through back issues of several experimental psychology journals, it’s still common to see the phrase: “Apparatus used: Apple II computers.”

While some experimental psychology work is shifting to MS/DOS and Macintosh computers, the installed base of Apple II’ s in college research labs ensures that Apple II will remain in use for still some time. Who knows what other mysteries of the mind will be revealed in the near future?

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