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Learning and Contemporary Views Memory

Dynamic Memory

In addition to the divergence between the structuralist and the proceduralist views, another major difference between memory research now and memory research in the 1960s and 1970s is the emphasis on the dynamic, reconstructive nature of memory. Long gone is the library metaphor in which memory was like a book in a library that just sat on a shelf. Instead, memories are seen as being dynamically constructed and changed according to the current available information. It is now well documented that people can even remember things that never happened.

Memory is now viewed as inherently reconstructive. This term emphasizes that at the first retrieval attempt, one constructs a memory from all available information. At the second retrieval attempt, the memory is constructed again. Consider what happens when an event is retrieved and then retrieved a second time. At the first retrieval attempt, you will have two sources of information: memory of the event itself and general knowledge. At the second retrieval attempt, you have three sources of information: memory of the event itself, general knowledge, and memory of your first retrieval.

This process is nicely illustrated from experiments that intentionally try to implant a memory of an event that did not happen. For example, Ira Hyman and F. James Billings asked their subjects, college students, to recall as much information as they could about events from their early childhood. Each subject was asked about two to four events that actually occurred (according to the subject's parents) and one event that did not occur. This event supposedly happened when the subject was five years old and concerned going to a wedding and knocking over the punch bowl, spilling some punch on the bride's parents. Originally only 3 percent recalled the wedding episode, as it had not occurred. Two days later the subjects were again asked to recall as much as they could, and this time 27 percent indicated remembering the event. Subjects were also asked to rate their confidence in the accuracy of their memory. There was no difference in the confidence ratings for real or made-up events.

This is not an isolated finding. People who read a story and were then told that the main character of a story was Helen Keller were likely to remember reading the sentence, "She was deaf, dumb, and blind," even though that sentence was not presented. A student in one of my memory classes had a memory of a favorite pet golden retriever. After hearing my lecture on this topic, she checked with her parents: the dog had died two years before she was born. Apparently she had heard stories about the dog and had seen slides featuring the dog and was attributing memory of these as memory of real events.

Studies from the eyewitness memory literature show that eyewitnesses readily incorporate information from questions into their recollections of events. Unless there is objective evidence available, there is no way of assessing the accuracy of recollection of an eyewitness: they may be very accurate, very inaccurate, or somewhere in the middle. Among the many factors that do not predict subsequent accuracy are the duration of the event; the emotional intensity of the event; the unusualness of the event; the number of details that can be recalled; the confidence expressed about the memory; and the delay between the event and the subsequent questioning.

Memory then is fundamentally active, dynamic, and reconstructive. Like other cognitive processes, memory processes recruit information from a variety of sources, including from memory of the event itself as well as from generic knowledge, memory of past recollections of the event, and even inferences, with the goal of constructing a sensible, coherent memory.


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Ian Neath

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Laser - Background And History to Linear equationLearning and Contemporary Views Memory - The Structuralist Approach, The Proceduralist Approach, Dynamic Memory, Bibliography