Impressed by the female memory

A meeting with ladies from the ‘Björken’ association for pensioners proved a defining moment for Agneta Herlitz’s career in research.

Name: Agneta Herlitz
Works as: Professor in the psychology of ageing in the Department of Clinical Neuroscience at Karolinska Institutet

Agneta Herlitz. Photo: Stefan Zimmerman

First published in Swedish the magazine Medicinsk Vetenskap, nr 3 2017.

“I got involved in a research project after just one semester on the psychology programme at Umeå University in the 1980s, as an assistant to start off with, then as a doctoral student. We were studying the memory during ageing and dementia, which meant I got to research and test the memories of a large number of elderly people – some of whom were dementia patients at the hospital, and some of whom were healthy trial participants from Björken, a local association for pensioners.

One of the women from Björken sticks in my memory in particular. She and I sat in the small library at the hospital where the test was being conducted; she spoke quietly, was short and plump, and very friendly. This lady had been born just after the turn of the century and grown up in humble surroundings in the countryside, and had had just a few years of schooling. She had given birth to 12 children. I myself had turned 20 fairly recently at that point, was full of enthusiasm but not so experienced. I thought that 12 sweet little babies sounded wonderful and congratulated her on having such a fantastic life. She didn’t show her irritation at how little I knew, instead quietly mentioning that it had not been easy at times.

Like many of the other ladies in the control group, she had a good memory. We noticed one clear difference in fact: that the healthy women in the group outperformed the healthy men by a good margin, which got me thinking. Did this reflect an actual difference between the sexes? Had this ever been put in writing anywhere? I searched, but found hardly any research on the subject. I was intrigued.

Once I had submitted my thesis and it was time for me to do something new, I chose to research sex and cognition – a subject I have continued with since. Today we know that there are a number of small differences that have been found in different cultures around the world. One of them is the one I noticed among the people of Björken: that women generally have slightly better episodic memory than men.”