Adaptive Memory: Animacy and the Method of Loci

Janell R Blunt, Purdue University


A functionalist approach to cognition assumes that people’s minds are tuned to process and remember information that benefits our survival or reproduction (Nairne, 2005). One source of information with potentially high fitness value is things that are alive and animate (Nairne, VanArsdall, Pandeirada, Cogdill, & LeBreton, 2013). The purpose of this dissertation was to explore the effects of using an ancient mnemonic – the method of loci – to examine memory for animate objects. Across four experiments, subjects used the method of loci to remember a list of animate or inanimate objects. I manipulated animacy by using animate or inanimate words (Experiments 1 and 4) or by using animate or inanimate images (Experiments 2, 3, and 4). In Experiment 1, memory for animate and inanimate words was tested in either the method of loci or a pleasantness ratings control condition. Subjects learned a list of words; half of the words were animate and the other half were inanimate. Subjects in both conditions recalled more animate than inanimate words. The animacy effect in the method of loci was smaller relative to the pleasantness condition. Experiments 2 and 3 were concerned with using imagery to manipulate animacy. In Experiment 2, all subjects were given a list of inanimate words. In the animate condition, subjects were told to imagine the object was alive whereas in the inanimate condition, subjects were given no explicit instructions concerning animacy. There was no animacy effect in this experiment. In Experiment 3, subjects saw inanimate words paired with experimenter-generated descriptions of images, half of which were animate and half of which were inanimate. Subjects recalled more words that were paired with animate images than words that were paired with inanimate images, although this effect was not statistically significant. Experiment 4 used a combination of animate words and images to examine the animacy effect. I factorially crossed word type (animate vs. inanimate) with image type (animate vs. inanimate) to explore the effect of adding animate and inanimate images to inanimate and inanimate words. There were main effects of word type and image type such that animate words were recalled more than inanimate words (as in Experiment 1) and words associated with animate images were recalled more than words associated with inanimate images (as in Experiment 3). Overall, the results of these four experiments suggest that the animacy effects persist in the method of loci. These results contribute to a growing body of evidence that suggest that animacy is a potent variable in memory.




Karpicke, Purdue University.

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