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Contact tracers use memory techniques to help COVID-positive people remember critical information

Professor Christian Meissner, an ISU psychology professor, shares two techniques to enhance contact tracers' work.

Contact tracers are overwhelmed. The state doesn't have enough to get the job done, but new research shows mind games can help. 

Professor Christian Meissner with Iowa State University led a team of researchers who helped to develop an enhancement to contact tracing, and it's all in your head: your memory. 

By using two techniques, contact tracers can help people who have tested positive with COVID remember where they were and who they were with. Number one is mental time travel, more specifically 'episodic memory'.

"Most of us can close our eyes and think about who we were with, what we were doing two nights ago at dinner, for example," said Professor Meissner. "It may take a little bit to reinstate that context or that experience...We might even start to recall the things that we heard. Maybe the things that we felt."

It's these cues in episodic memory that help us to remember more things. 

Number two is called 'queuing', where someone says a string of words to help someone remember something.

"We offer people in the contact tracing context categories that will help them queue into events or experiences that they [the person who tested positive for COVID] had," said Professor Meissner. For example, the words "weddings", "concerts", and "parties" might be strung together to help the COVID-positive person remember gatherings. 

Professor Meissner said when these two techniques were combined, people recalled 50% more information.

People who test positive for COVID don't need to wait for a contact tracer to call to use these techniques. These techniques are available at cogtracer.org and Professor Meissner encourages those who need it to start the process before a contact tracer calls. This will help in moving the call along. 

The initial study for techniques mostly consisted of adults, and Professor Meissner says it was made possible in part by a generous donation from Mark and Wendy Stavish, ISU alums themselves. The National Science Foundation gave the team funding for a second study focusing on children and older adults 65 years and older. That study is ongoing. 

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