memory psychology 4212

Memory (psychology)

April 30, 2021

Memory (psychology), processes by which people and other organisms encode, store, and retrieve information. Encoding refers to the initial perception and registration of information. Storage is the retention of encoded information over time. Retrieval refers to the processes involved in using stored information. Whenever people successfully recall a prior experience, they must have encoded, stored, and retrieved information about the experience. Conversely, memory failure—for example, forgetting an important fact—reflects a breakdown in one of these stages of memory.
Memory is critical to humans and all other living organisms. Practically all of our daily activities—talking, understanding, reading, socializing—depend on our having learned and stored information about our environments. Memory allows us to retrieve events from the distant past or from moments ago. It enables us to learn new skills and to form habits. Without the ability to access past experiences or information, we would be unable to comprehend language, recognize our friends and family members, find our way home, or even tie a shoe. Life would be a series of disconnected experiences, each one new and unfamiliar. Without any sort of memory, humans would quickly perish.
Philosophers, psychologists, writers, and other thinkers have long been fascinated by memory. Among their questions: How does the brain store memories? Why do people remember some bits of information but not others? Can people improve their memories? What is the capacity of memory? Memory also is frequently a subject of controversy because of questions about its accuracy. An eyewitness’s memory of a crime can play a crucial role in determining a suspect’s guilt or innocence. However, psychologists agree that people do not always recall events as they actually happened, and sometimes people mistakenly recall events that never happened.
Memory and learning are closely related, and the terms often describe roughly the same processes. The term learning is often used to refer to processes involved in the initial acquisition or encoding of information, whereas the term memory more often refers to later storage and retrieval of information. However, this distinction is not hard and fast. After all, information is learned only when it can be retrieved later, and retrieval cannot occur unless information was learned. Thus, psychologists often refer to the learning/memory process as a means of incorporating all facets of encoding, storage, and retrieval.
Although the English language uses a single word for memory, there are actually many different kinds. Most theoretical models of memory distinguish three main systems or types: sensory memory, short-term or working memory, and long-term memory. Within each of these categories are further divisions.
A Sensory Memory
Sensory memory refers to the initial, momentary recording of information in our sensory systems. When sensations strike our eyes, they linger briefly in the visual system. This kind of sensory memory is called iconic memory and refers to the usually brief visual persistence of information as it is being interpreted by the visual system. Echoic memory is the name applied to the same phenomenon in the auditory domain: the brief mental echo that persists after information has been heard. Similar systems are assumed to exist for other sensory systems (touch, taste, and smell), although researchers have studied these senses less thoroughly.
American psychologist George Sperling demonstrated the existence of sensory memory in an experiment in 1960. Sperling asked subjects in the experiment to look at a blank screen. Then he flashed an array of 12 letters on the screen for one-twentieth of a second, arranged in the following pattern:
Subjects were then asked to recall as many letters from the image as they could. Most could only recall four or five letters accurately. Subjects knew they had seen more letters, but they were unable to name them. Sperling hypothesized that the entire letter-array image registered briefly in sensory memory, but the image faded too quickly for subjects to “see” all the letters. To test this idea, he conducted another experiment in which he sounded a tone immediately after flashing the image on the screen. A high tone directed subjects to report the letters in the top row, a medium tone cued subjects to report the middle row, and a low tone directed subjects to report letters in the bottom row. Sperling found that subjects could accurately recall the letters in each row most of the time, no matter which row the tone specified. Thus, all of the letters were momentarily available in sensory memory.
Sensory memory systems typically function outside of awareness and store information for only a very short time. Iconic memory seems to last less than a second. Echoic memory probably lasts a bit longer; estimates range up to three or four seconds. Usually sensory information coming in next replaces the old information. For example, when we move our eyes, new visual input masks or erases the first image. The information in sensory memory vanishes unless it captures our attention and enters working memory.
B Short-Term or Working Memory
Psychologists originally used the term short-term memory to refer to the ability to hold information in mind over a brief period of time. As conceptions of short-term memory expanded to include more than just the brief storage of information, psychologists created new terminology. The term working memory is now commonly used to refer to a broader system that both stores information briefly and allows manipulation and use of the stored information.
We can keep information circulating in working memory by rehearsing it. For example, suppose you look up a telephone number in a directory. You can hold the number in memory almost indefinitely by saying it over and over to yourself. But if something distracts you for a moment, you may quickly lose it and have to look it up again. Forgetting can occur rapidly from working memory. For more information on the duration of working memory, see the Rate of Forgetting section of this article.
Psychologists often study working memory storage by examining how well people remember a list of items. In a typical experiment, people are presented with a series of words, one every few seconds. Then they are instructed to recall as many of the words as they can, in any order. Most people remember the words at the beginning and end of the series better than those in the middle. This phenomenon is called the serial position effect because the chance of recalling an item is related to its position in the series. The results from one such experiment are shown in the accompanying chart entitled “Serial Position Effect.” In this experiment, recall was tested either immediately after presentation of the list items or after 30 seconds. Subjects in both conditions demonstrated what is known as the primacy effect, which is better recall of the first few list items. Psychologists believe this effect occurs because people tend to process the first few items more than later items. Subjects in the immediate-recall condition also showed the recency effect, or better recall of the last items on the list. The recency effect occurs because people can store recently presented information temporarily in working memory. When the recall test is delayed for 30 seconds, however, the information in working memory fades, and the recency effect disappears.
Working memory has a basic limitation: It can hold only a limited amount of information at one time. Early research on short-term storage of information focused on memory span—how many items people can correctly recall in order. Researchers would show people increasingly long sequences of digits or letters and then ask them to recall as many of the items as they could. In 1956 American psychologist George Miller reviewed many experiments on memory span and concluded that people could hold an average of seven items in short-term memory. He referred to this limit as “the magical number seven, plus or minus two” because the results of the studies were so consistent. More recent studies have attempted to separate true storage capacity from processing capacity by using tests more complex than memory span. These studies have estimated a somewhat lower short-term storage capacity than did the earlier experiments. People can overcome such storage limitations by grouping information into chunks, or meaningful units. This topic is discussed in the Encoding and Recoding section of this article.
Working memory is critical for mental work, or thinking. Suppose you are trying to solve the arithmetic problem 64 × 9 in your head. You probably would need to perform some intermediate calculations in your head before arriving at the final answer. The ability to carry out these kinds of calculations depends on working memory capacity, which varies individually. Studies have also shown that working memory changes with age. As children grow older, their working memory capacity increases. Working memory declines in old age and in some types of brain diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease.
Working memory capacity is correlated with intelligence (as measured by intelligence tests). This correlation has led some psychologists to argue that working memory abilities are essentially those that underlie general intelligence. The more capacity people have to hold information in mind while they think, the more intelligent they are. In addition, research suggests that there are different types of working memory. For example, the ability to hold visual images in mind seems independent from the ability to retain verbal information.
C Long-Term Memory
The term long-term memory is somewhat of a catch-all phrase because it can refer to facts learned a few minutes ago, personal memories many decades old, or skills learned with practice. Generally, however, long-term memory describes a system in the brain that can store vast amounts of information on a relatively enduring basis. When you play soccer, remember what you had for lunch yesterday, recall your first birthday party, play a trivia game, or sing along to a favorite song, you draw on information and skills stored in long-term memory.
Psychologists have different theories about how information enters long-term memory. The traditional view is that that information enters short-term memory and, depending on how it is processed, may then transfer to long-term memory. However, another view is that short-term memory and long-term memory are arranged in a parallel rather than sequential fashion. That is, information may be registered simultaneously in the two systems.
There seems to be no finite capacity to long-term memory. People can learn and retain new facts and skills throughout their lives. Although older adults may show a decline in certain capacities—for example, recalling recent events—they can still profit from experience even in old age. For example, vocabulary increases over the entire life span. The brain remains plastic and capable of new learning throughout one’s lifetime, at least under normal conditions. Certain neurological diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease, can greatly diminish the capacity for new learning.
Psychologists once thought of long-term memory as a single system. Today, most researchers distinguish three long-term memory systems: episodic memory, semantic memory, and procedural memory.
C1 Episodic Memory
Episodic memory refers to memories of specific episodes in one’s life and is what most people think of as memory. Episodic memories are connected with a specific time and place. If you were asked to recount everything you did yesterday, you would rely on episodic memory to recall the events. Similarly, you would draw on episodic memory to describe a family vacation, the way you felt when you won an award, or the circumstances of a childhood accident. Episodic memory contains the personal, autobiographical details of our lives.
C2 Semantic Memory
Semantic memory refers to our general knowledge of the world and all of the facts we know. Semantic memory allows a person to know that the chemical symbol for salt is NaCl, that dogs have four legs, that Thomas Jefferson was president of the United States, that 3 × 3 equals 9, and thousands of other facts. Semantic memories are not tied to the particular time and place of learning. For example, in order to remember that Thomas Jefferson was president, people do not have to recall the time and place that they first learned this fact. The knowledge transcends the original context in which it was learned. In this respect, semantic memory differs from episodic memory, which is closely related to time and place. Semantic memory also seems to have a different neural basis than episodic memory. Brain-damaged patients who have great difficulties remembering their own recent personal experiences often can access their permanent knowledge quite readily. Thus, episodic memory and semantic memory seem to represent independent capacities.
C3 Procedural Memory
Procedural memory refers to the skills that humans possess. Tying shoelaces, riding a bicycle, swimming, and hitting a baseball are examples of procedural memory. Procedural memory is often contrasted with episodic and semantic memory. Episodic and semantic memory are both classified as types of declarative memory because people can consciously recall facts, events, and experiences and then verbally declare or describe their recollections. In contrast, nondeclarative, or procedural, memory is expressed through performance and typically does not require a conscious effort to recall.
Could you learn how to tie your shoelaces or to swim through purely declarative means—say, by reading or listening to descriptions of how to do it? If it would be possible at all, the process would be slow, difficult, and unnatural. People best gain procedural knowledge by practicing the procedures directly, not via instructions given in words. Verbal coaching in sports is partly a case of trying to impart procedural knowledge through declarative means, although coaching by example (and videotape) may work better. Still, in most cases there is no substitution for practice. Procedural learning may take considerable effort, and improvements can occur over a long period of time. The accompanying chart, entitled “Practice and Speed in Cigar-Making,” shows the effect of practice on Cuban factory workers making cigars. The performance of the workers continued to improve even after they had produced more than 100,000 cigars.
C4 Interaction of Long-Term Memory Systems
Although long-term episodic, semantic, and procedural memory all represent independent systems, it would usually be wrong to think of a particular task as relying exclusively on one type. The examples used above (remembering yesterday’s events, knowing that Thomas Jefferson was president, or tying shoes) represent relatively pure cases. However, most human activities rely on the interaction of long-term memory systems. Consider the expression of social skills or, more specifically, table manners. If you know to set the dinner table with the fork to the left of each plate, is this an example of procedural memory, semantic memory, or even episodic memory from having witnessed a past example? Probably the answer is some blend of all three. In addition, procedural memory does not apply only to physical skills, as in the previous examples. Complex cognitive behavior, such as reading or remembering, also has a procedural component—the mental procedures we execute to perform these activities. Thus, the separation of procedural and declarative memory from one another is not clear-cut in all cases.
Encoding is the process of perceiving information and bringing it into the memory system. Encoding is not simply copying information directly from the outside world into the brain. Rather, the process is properly conceived as recoding, or converting information from one form to another. The human visual system provides an example of how information can change forms. Light from the outside world enters the eye in the form of waves of electromagnetic radiation. The retina of the eye transduces (converts) this radiation to bioelectrical signals that the brain interprets as visual images. Similarly, when people encode information into memory, they convert it from one form to another to help them remember it later. For example, a simple digit, such as 7, can be recoded in many ways: as the word seven, the roman numeral VII, a prime number, the square root of 49, and so on. Recoding is routine in memory. Each of us has a unique background and set of experiences that help or hinder us in learning new information. An ornithologist could learn a list of obscure bird names much more easily than most of us due to his or her prior knowledge about birds, which would permit efficient recoding.
Recoding is often the key to efficient remembering. To understand the concept of recoding, first try to remember the following series of numbers by reading it once out loud, closing your eyes, and trying to recall the items in their correct order: one, four, nine, one, six, two, five, three, six, four, nine, six, four, eight, one. Test yourself now. If you are like most people, you might have recalled around 7 of the 15 digits in their correct order. However, a simple recoding strategy would have helped you to recall them effortlessly. Write the numbers out in digits and you may notice that they represent the squares of the numbers of 1 to 9: 1, 4, 9, 16, 25, 36, 49, 64, 81. That is, 1 squared is 1, 2 squared is 4, 3 squared is 9, 4 squared is 16, and so on. Recoding the series of numbers as a meaningful rule—the squares of the numbers 1 to 9—would have permitted you to remember all 15 digits. Although this example is contrived, the principle that underlies it is universally valid: How well a person remembers information depends on how the information is recoded. Recoding is sometimes called chunking, because separate bits of information can be grouped into meaningful units, or chunks. For example, the five letters e, t, s, e, and l can be rearranged into sleet and one word remembered instead of five individual units.
Psychologists have studied many different recoding strategies. One common strategy that people often use to remember items of information is to rehearse them, or to repeat them mentally. However, simply repeating information over and over again rarely aids long-term retention—although it works perfectly well to hold information, such as a phone number, in working memory. A more effective way to remember information is through effortful or elaborative processing, which involves thinking about information in a meaningful way and associating it with existing information in long-term memory.
One effective form of effortful processing is turning information into mental imagery. For example, one experiment compared two groups of people that were given different instructions on how to encode a list of words into memory. Some people were told to repeat the words over and over, and some were told to form mental pictures of the words. For words referring to concrete objects, such as truck and volleyball, forming mental images of each object led to better later recall than did rote rehearsal.
Thinking about the meaning of information is also a good technique for most memory tasks. Studies have found that the more deeply we process information, the more likely we are to recall it later. In 1975 Canadian psychologists Fergus Craik and Endel Tulving conducted a set of experiments that demonstrated this effect. The experimenters asked subjects to answer questions about a series of words, such as bear, which were flashed one at a time. For each word, subjects were asked one of three types of questions, each requiring a different level of processing or analysis. Sometimes subjects were asked about the word’s visual appearance: “Is the word in upper case letters?” For other words, subjects were asked to focus on the sound of the word: “Does it rhyme with chair?” The third type of question required people to think about the meaning of the word: “Is it an animal?” When subjects were later given a recognition test for the words they had seen, they were poor at recognizing words they had encoded superficially by visual appearance or sound. They were far better at recognizing words they had encoded for meaning. (See the accompanying chart entitled “Depth of Processing and Memory.”)
Although some information requires deliberate, effortful processing to store in long-term memory, a vast amount of information is encoded automatically, without effort or awareness. Every day each of us encodes and stores thousands of events and facts, most of which we will never need to recall. For example, people do not have to make a conscious effort to remember the face of a person they meet for the first time. They can easily recognize the person’s face in future encounters. Studies have shown that people also encode information about spatial locations, time, and the frequency of events without intending to. For instance, people can recognize how many times a certain word was presented in a long series of words with relative accuracy.
People have developed many elaborate and imaginative recoding strategies, known as mnemonic devices, to aid them in remembering information. For descriptions of mnemonic devices, see the Ways to Improve Memory section of this article.
Encoding and storage are necessary to acquire and retain information. But the crucial process in remembering is retrieval, without which we could not access our memories. Unless we retrieve an experience, we do not really remember it. In the broadest sense, retrieval refers to the use of stored information.
For many years, psychologists considered memory retrieval to be the deliberate recollection of facts or past experiences. However, in the early 1980s psychologists began to realize that people can be influenced by past experiences without any awareness that they are remembering. For example, a series of experiments showed that brain-damaged amnesic patients—who lose certain types of memory function—were influenced by previously viewed information even though they had no conscious memory of having seen the information before. Based on these and other findings, psychologists now distinguish two main classes of retrieval processes: explicit memory and implicit memory.
A Explicit Memory
Explicit memory refers to the deliberate, conscious recollection of facts and past experiences. If someone asked you to recall everything you did yesterday, this task would require explicit memory processes. There are two basic types of explicit memory tests: recall tests and recognition tests.
In recall tests, people are asked to retrieve memories without the benefit of any hints or cues. A request to remember everything that happened to you yesterday or to recollect all the words in a list you just heard would be an example of a recall test. Suppose you were briefly shown a series of words: cow, prize, road, gem, hobby, string, weather. A recall test would require you to write down or say as many of the words as you could. If you were instructed to recall the words in any order, the test would be one of free recall. If you were directed to recall the words in the order they were presented, the test would one of serial recall or ordered recall. Another type of test is cued recall, in which people are given cues or prompts designed to aid recall. Using the above list as an example, a cued recall test might ask, “What word on the list was related to car?” In school, tests that require an essay or fill-in-the-blank response are examples of recall tests. All recall tests require people to explicitly retrieve events from memory.
Recognition tests require people to examine a list of items and identify those they have seen before, or to determine whether they have seen a single item before. Multiple-choice and true-false exams are types of recognition tests. For example, a recognition test on the list of words above might ask, “Which of the following words appeared on the list? (a) plant (b) driver (c) string (d) radio.” People can often recognize items that they cannot recall. You have probably had the experience of not being able to answer a question but then recognizing an answer as correct when someone else supplies it. Likewise, adults shown yearbook pictures of their high-school classmates often have difficulty recalling the classmates’ names, but they can easily pick the classmates’ names out of a list.
In some cases, recall can be better than recognition. For example, if asked, “Do you know a famous person named Cooper?” you might answer “no.” However, given the cue “James Fenimore,” you might recall American writer James Fenimore Cooper, even though you did not recognize the surname by itself.
B Implicit Memory
Implicit memory refers to using stored information without trying to retrieve it. People often retain and use prior experiences without realizing it. For example, suppose that the word serendipity is not part of your normal working vocabulary, and one day you hear the word used in a conversation. A day later you find yourself using the word in conversation and wonder why. The earlier exposure to the word primed you to retrieve it automatically in the right situation without intending to do so.
Another example of implicit memory in everyday life is unintentional plagiarism. That is, people can copy the ideas of others without being aware they are doing so. The most famous case involved British singer-songwriter George Harrison, formerly of the Beatles. Harrison was sued because his 1970 hit song “My Sweet Lord” sounded strikingly similar to “He’s So Fine,” a 1963 hit by The Chiffons. Harrison denied that he had intentionally copied the earlier song but admitted that he had heard it before writing “My Sweet Lord.” In 1976 a judge ruled against Harrison, concluding that the singer had been unconsciously influenced by his memory.
Psychologists use the term priming to describe the relatively automatic change in performance resulting from prior exposure to information. Priming occurs even when people do not consciously remember being exposed to the information. One way to look for evidence of implicit memory, therefore, is to measure priming effects. In typical implicit memory experiments, subjects study a long list of words, such as assassin and boyhood. Later, subjects are presented with a series of word fragments (such as a_ _a_ _in and b_ _ho_d) or word “stems” (as______ or bo_____) and are instructed to complete the fragment or stem with the first word that comes to mind. The subjects are not explicitly asked to recall the list words. Nevertheless, the previous presentation of assassin and boyhood primes subjects to complete the fragments with these words more often than would be expected by guessing. This priming effect occurs even if the subjects do not remember studying the words before—strong evidence of implicit memory. The hallmark of all implicit memory tests is that people are not required to remember; rather, they are given a task, and past experience is expressed on the test relatively automatically.
Remarkably, even amnesic individuals show implicit memory. In one experiment, amnesic patients and normal subjects studied lists of words and then were given both an explicit memory test (free recall) and an implicit memory test (word-stem completion). Relative to control subjects, the amnesic patients failed miserably at the free-recall test. Due to their memory disorder, they could consciously remember very few of the list words. On the implicit test, however, the amnesic patients performed as well or better than the normal subjects (see the accompanying chart entitled “Word Memory in Amnesia”). Even though the amnesic patients could not consciously access the desired information, they expressed prior learning in the form of priming on the implicit memory test. They retained the information without knowing it.
Studies have found that a person’s performance on implicit memory tests can be relatively independent of his or her performance on explicit tests. Some factors that have large effects on explicit memory test performance have no effect—or even the opposite effect—on implicit memory test performance. For example, whether people pay attention to the appearance, the sound, or the meaning of words has a huge effect on how well they can explicitly recall the words later. But this variable has practically no effect on their implicit memory test performance (see the accompanying chart entitled “Explicit and Implicit Memory”). Implicit tests seem to tap a different form of memory.
C Retrieval Cues
One fascinating feature of remembering is how a cue from the external world can cause us to suddenly remember something from years ago. For example, returning to where you once lived or went to school may bring back memories of events experienced long ago. Sights, sounds, and smells can all trigger recall of long dormant events. These experiences point to the critical nature of retrieval in remembering.
A retrieval cue is any stimulus that helps us recall information in long-term memory. The fact that retrieval cues can provoke powerful recollections has led some researchers to speculate that perhaps all memories are permanent. That is, perhaps nearly all experiences are recorded in memory for a lifetime, and all forgetting is due not to the actual loss of memories but to our inability to retrieve them. This idea is an interesting one, but most memory researchers believe it is probably wrong.
Two general principles govern the effectiveness of retrieval cues. One is called the encoding specificity principle. According to this principle, stimuli may act as retrieval cues for an experience if they were encoded with the experience. Pictures, words, sounds, or smells will cause us to remember an experience to the extent that they are similar to the features of the experience that we encoded into memory. For example, the smell of cotton candy may trigger your memory of a specific amusement park because you smelled cotton candy there.
Distinctiveness is another principle that determines the effectiveness of retrieval cues. Suppose a group of people is instructed to study a list of 100 items. Ninety-nine are words, but one item in the middle of the list is a picture of an elephant. If people were given the retrieval cue “Which item was the picture?” almost everyone would remember the elephant. However, suppose another group of people was given a different 100-item list in which the elephant picture appeared in the same position, but all the other items were also pictures of other objects and animals. Now the retrieval cue would not enable people to recall the picture of the elephant because the cue is no longer distinctive. Distinctive cues specify one or a few items of information.
Overt cues such as sights and sounds can clearly induce remembering. But evidence indicates that more subtle cues, such as moods and physiological states, can also influence our ability to recall events. State-dependent memory refers to the phenomenon in which people can retrieve information better if they are in the same physiological state as when they learned the information. The initial observations that aroused interest in state-dependent memory came from therapists working with alcoholic patients. When sober, patients often could not remember some act they performed when intoxicated. For example, they might put away a paycheck while intoxicated and then forget where they put it. This memory failure is not surprising, because alcohol and other depressant drugs (such as marijuana, sedatives, and even antihistamines) are known to impair learning and memory. However, in the case of the alcoholics, if they got drunk again after a period of abstinence, they sometimes recovered the memory of where the paycheck was. This observation suggested that perhaps drug-induced states function as a retrieval cue.
A number of studies have confirmed this hypothesis. In one typical experiment, volunteers drank an alcoholic or nonalcoholic beverage before studying a list of words. A day later, the same subjects were asked to recall as many of the words as they could, either in the same state as they were in during the learning phase (intoxicated or sober) or in a different state. Not surprisingly, individuals intoxicated during learning but sober during the test did worse at recall than those sober during both phases. In addition, people who studied material sober and then were tested while intoxicated did worse than those sober for both phases. The most interesting finding, however, was that people intoxicated during both the learning and test phase did much better at recall than those who were intoxicated only during learning, showing the effect of state-dependent memory (see the chart entitled “State-Dependent Memory”). When people are in the same state during study and testing, their recall is better than those tested in a different state. However, one should not conclude that alcohol improves memory. As noted, alcohol and other depressant drugs usually impair memory and most other cognitive processes. Those who had alcohol during both phases remembered less than those who were sober during both phases.
Psychologists have also studied the topic of mood-dependent memory. If people are in a sad mood when exposed to information, will they remember it better later if they are in a sad mood when they try to retrieve it? Although experiments testing this idea have produced mixed results, most find evidence for mood-dependent memory. Recall tests are usually more sensitive to mood- and state-dependent effects than are recognition or implicit memory tests. Recognition tests may provide powerful retrieval cues that overshadow the effects of more subtle state and mood cues.
Mood- and state-dependent memory effects are further examples of the encoding specificity principle. If mood or drug state is encoded as part of the learning experience, then providing this cue during retrieval enhances performance.
D Curious Phenomena of Retrieval
Psychologists have explored several puzzling phenomena of retrieval that nearly everyone has experienced. These include déjà vu, jamais vu, flashbulb memories, and the tip-of-the-tongue state.
D1 Déjà Vu and Jamais Vu
The sense of déjà vu (French for “seen before”) is the strange sensation of having been somewhere before, or experienced your current situation before, even though you know you have not. One possible explanation of déjà vu is that aspects of the current situation act as retrieval cues that unconsciously evoke an earlier experience, resulting in an eerie sense of familiarity. Another puzzling phenomenon is the sense of jamais vu (French for “never seen”). This feeling arises when people feel they are experiencing something for the first time, even though they know they must have experienced it before. The encoding specificity principle may partly explain jamais vu; despite the overt similarity of the current and past situations, the cues of the current situation do not match the encoded features of the earlier situation.
D2 Flashbulb Memories
A flashbulb memory is an unusually vivid memory of an especially emotional or dramatic past event. For example, the death of Princess Diana in 1997 created a flashbulb memory for many people. People remember where they were when they heard the news, whom they heard it from, and other seemingly fine details of the event and how they learned of it. Examples of other public events for which many people have flashbulb memories are the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy in 1963, the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986, and the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995. Flashbulb memories may also be associated with vivid emotional experiences in one’s own life: the death of a family member or close friend, the birth of a baby, being in a car accident, and so on.
Are flashbulb memories as accurate as they seem? In one study, people were asked the day after the Challenger explosion to report how they learned about the news. Two years later the same people were asked the same question. One-third of the people gave answers different from the ones they originally reported. For example, some people initially reported hearing about the event from a friend, but then two years later claimed to have gotten the news from television. Therefore, flashbulb memories are not faultless, as is often supposed.
Flashbulb memories may seem particularly vivid for a variety of reasons. First, the events are usually quite distinctive and hence memorable. In addition, many studies show that events causing strong emotion (either positive or negative) are usually well remembered. Finally, people often think about and discuss striking events with others, and this periodic rehearsal may help to increase retention of the memory.
D3 Tip-of-the-Tongue State
Another curious phenomenon is the tip-of-the-tongue state. This term refers to the situation in which a person tries to retrieve a relatively familiar word, name, or fact, but cannot quite do so. Although the missing item seems almost within grasp, its retrieval eludes the person for some time. The feeling has been described as like being on the brink of a sneeze. Most people regard the tip-of-the-tongue state as mildly unpleasant and its eventual resolution, if and when it comes, as a relief. Studies have shown that older adults are more prone to the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon than are younger adults, although people of all ages report the experience.
Often when a person cannot retrieve the correct bit of information, some other wrong item intrudes into one’s thoughts. For example, in trying to remember the name of a short, slobbering breed of dog with long ears and a sad face, a person might repeatedly retrieve beagle but know that it is not the right answer. Eventually the person might recover the sought-after name, basset hound.
One theory of the tip-of-the tongue state is that the intruding item essentially clogs the retrieval mechanism and prevents retrieval of the correct item. That is, the person cannot think of basset hound because beagle gets in the way and blocks retrieval of the correct name. Another idea is that the phenomenon occurs when a person has only partial information that is simply insufficient to retrieve the correct item, so the failure is one of activation of the target item (basset hound in this example). Both the partial activation theory and the blocking theory could be partly correct in explaining the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon.
One of the most controversial issues in the study of memory is the accuracy of recollections, especially over long periods of time. We would like to believe that our cherished memories of childhood and other periods in our life are faithful renditions of the past. However, several case studies and many experiments show that memories—even when held with confidence—can be quite erroneous.
The Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget reported a striking case from his own past. He had a firm memory from early childhood of his nurse fending off an attempted kidnapping, with himself as the potential victim. He remembered his nanny pushing him in his carriage when a man came up and tried to kidnap him. He had a detailed memory of the man, of the location of the event, of scratches that his nanny received when she fended off the villain, and finally, of a police officer coming to the rescue. However, when Piaget was 15 years old, his nanny decided to confess her past sins. One of these was that she had made up the entire kidnapping story to attract sympathy and scratched herself to make it seem real. The events Piaget so vividly remembered from his childhood had never actually occurred! Piaget concluded that the false memory was probably implanted by the nanny’s frequent retelling of the original story over the years. Eventually, the scene became rooted in Piaget’s memory as an actual event.
A Memory Reconstruction
Psychologists generally accept the idea that long-term memories are reconstructive. That is, rather than containing an exact and detailed record of our past, like a video recording, our memories are instead more generic. As a better analogy, consider paleontologists who must reconstruct a dinosaur from bits and pieces of actual bones. They begin with a general idea or scheme of what the dinosaur looked like and then fit the bits and pieces into the overall framework. Likewise, in remembering, we begin with general themes about past events and later weave in bits and pieces of detail to develop a coherent story. Whether the narrative that we weave today can faithfully capture the distant past is a matter of dispute. In many cases psychologists have discovered that recollections can deviate greatly from the way the events actually occurred, just as in the anecdote about Piaget.
Sir Frederic Bartlett, a British psychologist, argued for the reconstructive nature of memory in the 1930s. He introduced the term schema and its plural form schemata to refer to the general themes that we retain of experience. For example, if you wanted to remember a new fairy tale, you would try to integrate information from the new tale into your general schema for what a fairy tale is. Many researchers have showed that schemata can distort the memories that people form of events. That is, people will sometimes remove or omit details of an experience from memory if they do not fit well with the schema. Similarly, people may confidently remember details that did not actually occur because they are consistent with the schema.
Another way our cognitive system introduces error is by means of inference. Whenever humans encode information, they tend to make inferences and assumptions that go beyond the literal information given. For example, one study showed that if people read a sentence such as “The karate champion hit the cinder block,” they would often remember the sentence as “The karate champion broke the cinder block.” The remembered version of the events is implied by the original sentence but is not literally stated there (the champion may have hit the block and not broken it). Many memory distortions arise from these errors of encoding, in which the information encoded into memory is not literally what was perceived but is some extension of it.
B Eyewitness Testimony
The question of memory distortion has particular importance in the courtroom. Each year thousands of people are charged with crimes solely on the basis of eyewitness testimony, and in many trials an eyewitness’s testimony is the main evidence by which juries decide a suspect’s guilt or innocence. Are eyewitnesses’ memories accurate? Although eyewitness testimony is often correct, psychologists agree that witnesses are not always accurate in their recollections of events. We have already described how people often remember events in a way that fits with their expectations or schema for a situation. In addition, evidence shows that memories may be distorted after an event has occurred. After experiencing or seeing a crime, an eyewitness is exposed to a great deal of further information related to the crime. The witness may be interrogated by police, by attorneys, and by friends. He or she may also read information related to the case. Such information, coming weeks or months after the crime, can cause witnesses to reconstruct their memory of the crime and change what they say on the witness stand.
American psychologist Elizabeth Loftus has conducted many experiments that demonstrate how eyewitnesses can reconstruct their memories based on misleading information. In one study, subjects watched a videotape of an automobile accident involving two cars. Later they were given a questionnaire about the incident, one item of which asked, “About how fast were the cars going when they hit each other?” For some groups of subjects, however, the verb hit was replaced by smashed, collided, bumped, or contacted. Although all subjects viewed the same videotape, their speed estimates differed considerably as a function of how the question was asked. The average speed estimate was 32 mph when the verb was contacted, 34 mph when it was hit, 38 mph when it was bumped, 39 mph when it was collided, and 41 mph when it was smashed. In a follow-up study, subjects were asked a week later whether there was any broken glass at the accident scene. In reality, the film showed no broken glass. Those questioned with the word smashed were more than twice as likely to “remember” broken glass than those asked the question with hit. The information coming in after the original event was integrated with that event, causing it to be remembered in a different way.
This study, and dozens of others like it, shows the power of leading questions: The form in which the question is asked helps determine its answer. Our memories are not encapsulated little packets lying in the brain undisturbed until they are needed for retrieval. Rather, people are prone to the misinformation effect—the tendency to distort one’s memory of an event when later exposed to misleading information about it. Eyewitnesses’ testimony can be tainted and altered by information they hear or see after the critical event in question. Therefore, in court cases one must carefully consider whether the testimony of an eyewitness could possibly have been altered through misleading suggestions provided between the time of the crime and the court case.
The problem of determining whether memories are accurate is even more difficult when children are the witnesses. Research shows that in some situations children are more prone to memory distortions than are young adults. In addition, older adults (over 70 years of age) often show a greater tendency to memory distortion than do younger adults.
Even though psychologists have shown that memories can be distorted and that people can remember things that never occurred, our memories are certainly not totally faulty. Usually memory does capture the gist of events that have occurred to us, even if details may be readily distorted.
C Recovered Memories
Can people recover memories of childhood experiences in adulthood, ones that they had never thought about since childhood? Can a powerful retrieval cue suddenly trigger a memory for some long-lost event? Although these questions are interesting, scientific evidence does not yet exist to answer them convincingly. Of course, people often do remember childhood experiences quite clearly, but these memories are usually of significant events that have been repeatedly retrieved over the years. The questions above, on the other hand, pertain to unique events that have not been repeatedly retrieved. Can people remember something when they are 40 years old that happened to them when they were 10 years old—something that they have never thought about during the intervening 30 years?
Such questions take on renewed relevance in what is called the recovered memory controversy. Although the term recovered memory could be applied to retrieval of any memory from the distant past, it is normally used to refer to a particular type of case in contemporary psychology: the long-delayed recovery of sexual abuse in childhood. In a typical case, a person—often, but not always, undergoing psychotherapy—claims to recover a memory of some horrific childhood event. The prototypical case involves an adult woman recovering a memory of being sexually abused by a male figure from her childhood, such as being raped by a father, uncle, or teacher. Sometimes the memory is recovered suddenly, but often the recovery is gradual, occurring over days and weeks. After recovering the memory, the person may confront and accuse the individual deemed responsible, or even take the person to court. The accused person almost always vehemently denies the allegation and claims the events never took place. Whom is to be believed?
A huge debate swirls over the accuracy of recovered memories. Proponents of their accuracy believe in the theory of repression, which is discussed in a subsequent section of this article. According to this theory, memories for terrible events (especially of a sexual nature) can be repressed, or banished to an unconscious state. The memories may lie dormant for years, but with great effort and appropriate cues, they can be retrieved with relative accuracy. Critics point out that there is little evidence supporting the concept of repression, aside from some reports on individual cases. The critics believe that the processes that give rise to false memories—suggestion and imagination—may better explain the phenomenon of recovered memories.
Without corroborating evidence, there is no way to check the accuracy of recovered memories. Thus, even though people may sincerely believe they have recovered a memory of an event from their distant past, the event usually remains a matter of belief, not of fact. Because psychologists know so little about recovery of distant memories, even of normal experiences, the debate over recovered memories is not likely to be resolved soon. For more detail on the recovered memory controversy, see the sidebar “Recovered Memories and False Memories” in Encarta Encyclopedia Deluxe.
Forgetting is defined as the loss of information over time. Under most conditions, people recall information better soon after learning it than after a long delay; as time passes, they forget some of the information. We have all failed to remember some bit of information when we need it, so we often see forgetting as a bother. However, forgetting can also be useful because we need to continually update our memories. When we move and receive a new telephone number, we need to forget the old one and learn the new one. If you park your car every day on a large lot, you need to remember where you parked it today and not yesterday or the day before. Thus, forgetting can have an adaptive function.
A Rate of Forgetting
The subject of forgetting is one of the oldest topics in experimental psychology. German philosopher Hermann Ebbinghaus initiated the scientific study of human memory in experiments that he began in 1879 and published in 1885 in his book, On Memory. Ebbinghaus developed an ingenious way to measure forgetting. In order to avoid the influence of familiar material, he created dozens of lists of nonsense syllables, which consisted of pronounceable but meaningless three-letter combinations such as XAK or CUV. He would learn a list by repeating the items in it over and over, until he could recite the list once without error. He would note how many trials or how long it took him to learn the list. He then tested his memory of the list after an interval ranging from 20 minutes to 31 days. He measured how much he had forgotten by the amount of time or the number of trials it took him to relearn the list. By conducting this experiment with many lists, Ebbinghaus found that the rate of forgetting was relatively consistent. Forgetting occurred relatively rapidly at first and then seemed to level off over time (see the accompanying chart entitled “Forgetting Curve”). Other psychologists have since confirmed that the general shape of the forgetting curve holds true for many different types of material. Some researchers have argued that with very well learned material, the curve eventually flattens out, showing no additional forgetting over time.
Ebbinghaus’s forgetting curve illustrated the loss of information from long-term memory. Researchers have also studied rate of forgetting for short-term or working memory. In one experiment, subjects heard an experimenter speak a three-letter combination (such as CYG or FTQ). The subjects’ task was to repeat back the three letters after a delay of 3, 6, 9, 12, 15, or 18 seconds. To prevent subjects from mentally rehearsing the letters during the delay, they were instructed to count backward by threes from a random three-digit number, such as 361, until signaled to recall the letters. As shown in the accompanying chart entitled “Duration of Working Memory,” forgetting occurs very rapidly in this situation. Nevertheless, it follows the same general pattern as in long-term memory, with sharp forgetting at first and then a declining rate of forgetting. Psychologists have debated for many years whether short-term and long-term forgetting have similar or different explanations.
B Decay Theory of Forgetting
The oldest idea about forgetting is that it is simply caused by decay. That is, memory traces are formed in the brain when we learn information, and they gradually disintegrate over time. Although decay theory was accepted as a general explanation of forgetting for many years, most psychologists do not lend it credence today for several reasons. First, decay theory does not really provide an explanation of forgetting, but merely a description. That is, time by itself is not a causative agent; rather, processes operating over time cause effects. Consider a bicycle left out in the rain that has rusted. If someone asked why it rusted, he or she would not be satisfied with the answer of “time out in the rain.” A more accurate explanation would refer to oxidation processes operating over time as the cause of the rusty bicycle. Likewise, memory decay merely describes the fact of forgetting, not the processes that cause it.
The second problem for decay theory is the phenomenon of reminiscence, the fact that sometimes memories actually recover over time. Experiments confirm an observation experienced by most people: One can forget some information at one point in time and yet be able to retrieve it perfectly well at a later point. This feat would be impossible if memories inevitably decayed further over time. A final reason that decay theory is no longer accepted is that researchers accumulated support for a different theory—that interference processes cause forgetting.
C Interference Theory of Forgetting
According to many psychologists, forgetting occurs because of interference from other information or activities over time. A now-classic experiment conducted in 1924 by two American psychologists, John Jenkins and Karl Dallenbach, provided the first evidence for the role of interference in forgetting. The experimenters enlisted two students to learn lists of nonsense syllables either late at night (just before going to bed) or the first thing in the morning (just after getting up). The researchers then tested the students’ memories of the syllables after one, two, four, or eight hours. If the students learned the material just before bed, they slept during the time between the study session and the test. If they learned the material just after waking, they were awake during the interval before testing. The researchers’ results are shown in the accompanying chart entitled, “Forgetting in Sleep and Waking.” The students forgot significantly more while they were awake than while they were asleep. Even when wakened from a sound sleep, they remembered the syllables better than when they returned to the lab for testing during the day. If decay of memories occurred automatically with the passage of time, the rate of forgetting should have been the same during sleep and waking. What seemed to cause forgetting was not time itself, but interference from activities and events occurring over time.
There are two types of interference. Proactive interference occurs when prior learning or experience interferes with our ability to recall newer information. For example, suppose you studied Spanish in tenth grade and French in eleventh grade. If you then took a French vocabulary test much later, your earlier study of Spanish vocabulary might interfere with your ability to remember the correct French translations. Retroactive interference occurs when new information interferes with our ability to recall earlier information or experiences. For example, try to remember what you had for lunch five days ago. The lunches you have had for the intervening four days probably interfere with your ability to remember this event. Both proactive and retroactive interference can have devastating effects on remembering.
D Repression
Another possible cause of forgetting resides in the concept of repression, which refers to forgetting an unpleasant event or piece of information due to its threatening quality. The idea of repression was introduced in the late 19th century by Austrian physician Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis. According to Freudian theory, people banish unpleasant events into their unconscious mind. However, repressed memories may continue to unconsciously influence people’s attitudes and behaviors and may result in unpleasant side effects, such as unusual physical symptoms and slips of speech. A simple example of repression might be forgetting a dentist appointment or some other unpleasant daily activity. Some theorists believe that it is possible to forget entire episodes of the past—such as being sexually abused as a child—due to repression. The concept of repression is complicated and difficult to study scientifically. Most evidence exists in the form of case studies that are usually open to multiple interpretations. For this reason, many memory researchers are skeptical of repression as an explanation of forgetting, although this verdict is by no means unanimous. For further information on repressed memories, see the sidebar “Recovered Memories and False Memories” that accompanies this article.
One of the most exciting topics of scientific investigation lies in cognitive neuroscience: How do physical processes in the brain give rise to our psychological experiences? In particular, a great deal of research is trying to uncover the biological basis of learning and memory. How does the brain code experience so that it can be later remembered? Where do memory processes occur in the brain?
In the early and mid-1900s, psychologists engaged in the “search for the engram.” They used the term engram to refer to the physical change in the nervous system that occurs as a result of experience. (Today most psychologists use the term memory trace to describe the same thing.) The researchers hoped to find some particular location in the brain where memories were stored. This early work, conducted mostly with animals, failed to find a specific locus of memory in the brain. For example, American psychologist Karl Lashley trained rats to solve a maze, then surgically removed various parts of the rats’ brains. No matter what part of the brain he removed, the rats always retained at least some ability to solve the maze. From such research, psychologists concluded that memory is distributed across the brain, not localized in one place.
A Brain Structures Involved in Memory
Modern research confirms the hypothesis that memories are not localized in one place in the brain, but rather involve interacting circuits operating across the brain. Many of the neural regions used in perceiving and attending to information seem also to be involved in the encoding and subsequent retrieval of information. Thus, although different brain regions perform different memory-related processes, the memories themselves do not appear to reside in any particular place.
The hippocampus is thought to be one of the most important brain structures involved in memory. The case of the patient H.M. (only his initials were used to preserve his anonymity), one of the most famous case studies in neuropsychology, strikingly demonstrates the importance of the hippocampus. In 1953, as a 27-year-old man, H.M. underwent brain surgery to control severe epileptic seizures. The surgeons removed his medial temporal lobes, which included most of the hippocampus, the amygdala, and surrounding structures. Although the operation successfully controlled H.M.’s seizures, it had an altogether unexpected and devastating side effect: H.M. was unable to form new long-term memories in a way that he could later retrieve them. That is, he could not remember anything that happened to him after the surgery. His memory of events prior to the surgery was mostly intact, and his reasoning and thinking skills remained strong. But he could not remember meeting new people or new experiences for more than a few minutes. Researchers concluded that the hippocampus and its surrounding structures in the medial temporal lobe play a critical role in the encoding of episodic memories, especially in binding elements of memories together to locate the memories in particular times and places.
Further evidence for the importance of the hippocampus and other regions of the brain in human memory has been provided by advanced brain imaging techniques, such as positron emission tomography (PET) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Brain imaging methods allow researchers to see the activity of the living human brain on a computer screen as a person engages in different types of cognitive tasks, such as reading, solving math problems, or memorizing a list of words. These scanning methods take advantage of the fact that when a brain region becomes active, the rate at which neurons (brain cells) fire increases within this region. Increased neuronal firing in a region causes an increase in blood flow to that region, which the scanners can measure. Therefore, if a person is encoding new information into memory and the hippocampus is active during encoding, we would expect to see increased blood flow to the hippocampus. This is exactly the pattern observed in most studies.
Neuroimaging techniques have revealed other brain regions involved in memory. The frontal lobes play an important role in encoding and retrieving memories. For example, certain areas of the left frontal lobe seem especially active during encoding of memories, whereas those in the right frontal lobe are more active during retrieval. An area in the right anterior prefrontal cortex becomes active when a person is trying to retrieve a previously experienced episode. Some evidence indicates that this region may be even more active when the retrieval attempt is successful—that is, when the person not only attempts to remember but is able to remember some previous occurrence.
For more information on brain imaging methods, See also Brain: Brain Imaging.
B Biochemistry of Memory
The study of the biochemistry of memory is another exciting scientific enterprise, but one that can only be touched upon here. Scientists estimate that an adult human brain contains about 100 billion neurons. Each of these is connected to hundreds or thousands of other neurons, forming trillions of neural connections. Neurons communicate by chemical messengers called neurotransmitters. An electrical signal travels along the neuron, triggering the release of neurotransmitters at the synapse, the small gap between neurons. The neurotransmitters travel across the synapse and act on the next neuron by binding with protein molecules called receptors. Most scientists believe that memories are somehow stored among the brain’s trillions of synapses, rather than in the neurons themselves.
Scientists who study the biochemistry of learning and memory often focus on the marine snail Aplysia because its simple nervous system allows them to study the effects of various stimuli on specific synapses. A change in the snail’s behavior due to learning can be correlated with a change at the level of the synapse. One exciting scientific frontier is discovering the changes in neurotransmitters that occur at the level of the synapse.
Other researchers have implicated glucose (a sugar) and insulin (a hormone secreted by the pancreas) as important to learning and memory. Humans and other animals given these substances show an improved capacity to learn and remember. Typically, when animals or humans ingest glucose, the pancreas responds by increasing insulin production, so it is difficult to determine which substance contributes to improved performance. Some studies in humans that have systematically varied the amount of glucose and insulin in the blood have shown that insulin may be the more important of the two substances for learning.
Scientists also have examined the influence of genes on learning and memory. In one study, scientists bred strains of mice with extra copies of a gene that helps build a protein called N-methyl-D-aspartate, or NMDA. This protein acts as a receptor for certain neurotransmitters. The genetically altered mice outperformed normal mice on a variety of tests of learning and memory. In addition, other studies have found that chemically blocking NMDA receptors impairs learning in laboratory rats. Future discoveries from genetic and biochemical studies may lead to treatments for memory deficits from Alzheimer’s disease and other conditions that affect memory.
Amnesia means loss of memory. There are many different types of amnesias, but they fall into two major classes according to their cause: functional amnesia and organic amnesia. Functional amnesia refers to memory disorders that seem to result from psychological trauma, not an injury to the brain. Organic amnesia involves memory loss caused by specific malfunctions in the brain. Another type of amnesia is infantile amnesia, which refers to the fact that most people lack specific memories of the first few years of their life.
A Functional Amnesia
Severe psychological trauma can sometimes cause functional amnesia. People with functional amnesia seem to have nothing physically wrong with their brain, even though the traumatic event presumably affects their brain in some way. In dissociative amnesia (sometimes called limited amnesia), a person loses memory of some important past experiences. For example, a person victimized by a crime may lose his or her memory for the event. Soldiers returning from battle sometimes experience similar symptoms.
Another type of functional amnesia is dissociative fugue, also referred to as functional retrograde amnesia. People with this disorder have much more extensive forgetting that may obscure their whole past. They commonly forget their personal identity and personal memories, and they often unexpectedly wander away from home. Typically the fugue state ends by itself within a few days or weeks. Often, after recovery the individual fails to remember anything that occurred during the fugue state.
Dissociative identity disorder, also called multiple personality disorder, is a type of amnesia in which a person appears to have two or more distinct personal identities. These identities alternate in their control of the individual’s conscious experiences, thoughts, and actions. In many cases, the person’s primary identity cannot recall what happened while the individual was controlled by another identity.
Although functional amnesias are a recurrent theme of television shows and movies, relatively few well-documented cases exist in the scientific literature. Most experts believe that these conditions do exist, but that they are exceedingly rare.
B Organic Amnesia
Organic amnesia refers to any traumatic forgetting that is produced by specific brain damage. Typically, these amnesias occur as part of brain disorders caused by tumors, strokes, head trauma, or degenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease. However, certain psychoactive drugs (drugs affecting mood or behavior) can cause amnesia, as can certain dietary deficiencies and electroconvulsive therapy for depression. Organic amnesias may be temporary or permanent. Amnesia resulting from a mild concussion or from electroconvulsive therapy is usually temporary, whereas severe head injuries may lead to permanent memory loss.
The case of the patient H.M., described earlier in this article, is an example of organic amnesia. In 1953 brain surgery for epilepsy left H.M. with dramatic anterograde amnesia, meaning he was unable to remember new information and events that occurred after his operation. Somewhat surprisingly, this severe impairment in the ability to learn new information was accompanied by no detectable impairment in his general intellectual ability or in his ability to use or understand language. H.M. also showed some retrograde amnesia, or inability to remember events before the onset of the surgery. For example, he could not recall that his favorite uncle had died three years earlier. Still, most of his general knowledge was intact, and he performed well on a test of famous faces (of people who had become famous prior to 1950).
Studies of H.M. and other amnesic patients have provided surprising insights into the workings of memory. One remarkable finding is that even though H.M. had severe anterograde amnesia, he (and other amnesic patients like him) still performed normally on tests of implicit memory. For example, H.M. could learn new motor skills, even though he would have no conscious memory of doing so. Even in dense, or severe, amnesias, not all memory abilities are impaired. For more information on implicit memory, see the Implicit Memory section of this article.
Korsakoff’s syndrome, also called Korsakoff’s psychosis, is a disorder that produces severe and often permanent amnesia. In this condition, years of chronic alcoholism and thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency cause brain damage, particularly to the thalamus, which helps process sensory information, and to the mammillary bodies, which lie beneath the thalamus. Some patients also have damage to the cortex and cerebellum. Korsakoff’s patients show severe anterograde amnesia, or difficulty learning anything new. In addition, most suffer from retrograde amnesia ranging from mild to severe and typically cannot remember recent experiences. The condition is also associated with other intellectual deficits, such as confusion and disorientation. Korsakoff’s syndrome is named after Sergei Korsakov (Korsakoff), the Russian neurologist who first described it in the late 19th century.
Amnesia also occurs in Alzheimer’s disease, a condition in which the neurons in the brain gradually degenerate, hindering brain function. Damage to the hippocampus and frontal lobes impairs memory. Many other types of organic amnesias exist. For example, in large doses, most depressant drugs can cause acute loss of memory. With severe alcohol or marijuana intoxication, people often forget events that occurred while under influence of the drug.
C Infantile Amnesia
Infantile amnesia, also called childhood amnesia, refers to the fact that people can remember very little about the first few years of their life. Surveys have shown that most people report their earliest memory to be between their third and fourth birthdays. Furthermore, people’s memories of childhood generally do not become a continuous narrative until after about seven years of age.
Psychologists do not know what causes infantile amnesia, but they have several theories. One view is that brain structures critical to memory are too immature during the first few years of life to record long-term memories. Another theory is that children cannot remember events that occurred before they mastered language. In this view, language provides a system of symbolic representation by which people develop narrative stories of their lives. Such a narrative framework may be necessary for people to remember autobiographical events in a coherent context.
The phenomenon of infantile amnesia does not mean that infants and young children cannot learn. After all, babies learn to stand, walk, and talk. Scientific evidence indicates that even young infants can learn and retain information well. For example, one experiment found that three-month-old babies could learn that kicking their legs moves a mobile over their crib. Up to a month later, the babies could still demonstrate their knowledge that kicking moved the mobile. Infants and toddlers seem to retain implicit memories of their experiences.
All people differ somewhat in their ability to remember information. However, some individuals have remarkable memories and perform feats that normal individuals could never hope to achieve. These individuals, sometimes called mnemonists (pronounced “nih-MAHN-ists”), are considered to have exceptional memory.
Psychologists have described several cases of exceptional memory. Aleksandr R. Luria, a Russian neuropsychologist, described one of the most famous cases in his book The Mind of a Mnemonist (1968). Luria recounted the abilities of S. V. Shereshevskii, a man he called S. Luria studied Shereshevskii over many years and watched him perform remarkable memory feats. However, until Luria began studying these feats, Shereshevskii was unaware of how extraordinary his talents were. For example, Shereshevskii could study a blackboard full of nonsense material and then reproduce it at will years later. He could also memorize long lists of nonsense syllables, extremely complex scientific formulas, and numbers more than 100 digits long. In each case, Shereshevskii could recall the information flawlessly, even if asked to produce it in reverse order. Luria reported one instance in which Shereshevskii was able to recall a 50-word list when the test was given without warning 15 years after presentation of the list! He recalled all 50 words without a single error.
The primary technique Shereshevskii used was mental imagery. He generated very rich mental images to represent information. In addition, part of his ability might have been due to his astonishing capacity for synesthesia. Synesthesia occurs when information coming into one sensory modality, such as a sound, evokes a sensation in another sensory modality, such as a sight, taste, smell, feel, or touch. All people have synesthesia to a slight degree. For example, certain colors may “feel” warm or cool. However, Shereshevskii’s synesthesia was extremely vivid and unusual. For example, Shereshevskii once told a colleague of Luria’s, “What a crumbly yellow voice you have.” He also associated numbers with shapes, colors, and even people. Synesthetic reactions probably improved Shereshevskii’s memory because he could encode events in a very elaborate way. But they often caused him confusion, too. For example, reading was difficult because each word in a sentence evoked its own mental image, interfering with comprehension of the sentence as a whole.
A second case of exceptional memory illustrates the talent some people display for remembering certain types of material. In a series of tests in the 1980s and 1990s, Rajan Srinavasen Mahadevan (known as Rajan) demonstrated a remarkable talent for remembering numbers, but for other types of material, his memory ability tested in the normal range. Rajan memorized the mathematical ratio pi, which begins 3.14159 and continues indefinitely with no known pattern, to nearly 32,000 decimal places! If given a string of digits, within a few seconds he could accurately say whether or not the string appears in the first 32,000 digits of pi. He could also rapidly identify any of the first 10,000 digits of pi when given a specific decimal place. For example, he could tell what digit is in decimal place 6,243 in about 12 seconds, and he rarely made errors on this task. Rajan demonstrated great skill at learning new numerical information.
Shereshevskii and Rajan scored in the normal range on standard intelligence tests. Another group of people, those with savant syndrome (formerly called idiot savants), usually score low on intelligence tests but have one “island” of outstanding cognitive ability. Many children and adults who are deemed savants have extraordinary memory. Psychologists have studied many cases of savant syndrome, but its nature remains a mystery.
Cases of exceptional memory stand as remarkable puzzles whose implications for normal memory functioning are unclear. In some cases the remarkable talents exemplify techniques (such as mental imagery) that are known to magnify normal memory ability. These striking cases have not been integrated well into the scientific study of memory, but generally stand apart as curiosities that cannot yet be explained in any meaningful way.
Memory improvement techniques are called mnemonic devices or simply mnemonics. Mnemonics have been used since the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans. In ancient times, before writing was easily accomplished, educated people were trained in the art of memorizing. For example, orators had to remember points they wished to make in long speeches. Many of the techniques developed thousands of years ago are still used today. Modern research has allowed psychologists to better understand and refine the techniques.
All mnemonic devices depend upon two basic principles discussed earlier in this article: (1) recoding of information into forms that are easy to remember, and (2) supplying oneself with excellent retrieval cues to recall the information when it is needed. For example, many schoolchildren learn the colors of the visible spectrum by learning the imaginary name ROY G. BIV, which stands for red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. Similarly, to remember the names of the Great Lakes, remember HOMES (Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior). Both of these examples illustrate the principle of recoding. Several bits of information are repackaged into an acronym that is easier to remember. The letters of the acronym serve as retrieval cues that enable recall of the desired information.
Psychologists and others have devised much more elaborate recoding and decoding schemes. Three of the most common mnemonic techniques are the method of loci, the pegword method, and the PQ4R method. Research has shown that mnemonic devices such as these permit greater recall than do strategies that people usually use, such as ordinary rehearsal (repeating information to oneself).
A Method of Loci
One of the oldest mnemonics is the method of loci (loci is a Latin word meaning “places”). This method involves forming vivid interactive images between specific locations and items to be remembered. The first step is to learn a set of places. For instance, you might familiarize yourself with various locations around your house: the front sidewalk, the front doorstep, the front door, the foyer and so on. Once you have permanently memorized the locations, you can then use them to recode experiences for later recall. You can use the method of loci to remember any set of information, such as a grocery list or points in a speech. The best strategy is to convert each item of information into a vivid mental image by putting it at a familiar location where it can be “seen” in the mind. So, for example, you might remember a grocery list as bread on the front sidewalk, milk on the front porch, bananas hanging from the front door, and so on. When you are at the grocery store and need to remember the list, you can mentally walk through the house and see what object is in each spot. The locations serve as retrieval cues for the desired information. Although this technique may seem far-fetched, with a little practice it can prove quite effective. In fact, the amount of information one can remember using this method is limited only by the number of locations one has memorized.
B Pegword Method
Another mnemonic that relies on the power of visual imagery is called the pegword method. There are many variations on the pegword method, but they are all based on the same general principle. People learn a series of words that serve as “pegs” on which memories can be “hung.” In one popular scheme, the pegwords rhyme with numbers to make the words easy to remember: One is a gun, two is a shoe, three is a tree, four is a door, five is a hive, six is sticks, seven is heaven, eight is a plate, nine is wine, and ten is a hen. To learn the same grocery list, one might associate gun and bread by imagining the gun shooting the bread. Two is a shoe, so one would imagine a milk carton sitting in a giant shoe, and so on. When you need to remember the list of groceries, you simply recall the pegwords associated with each number; the pegwords then serve as retrieval cues for the groceries. Peg methods such as this one permit more flexible access to information than does the method of loci. For example, if you want to recite the items backwards for some reason, you can do so just as easily as in the forward direction. If you need to know the eighth item, you can say “eight is a plate” and mentally look at your image for the item on the plate.
C PQ4R Method
The PQ4R method is a mnemonic technique used for remembering text material. The name is itself a mnemonic device for the steps involved. If you are interested in better remembering a chapter from a textbook, you should first Preview the information by skimming quickly through the chapter and looking at the headings. The next step is to form Questions about the information. One way to do this is by simply converting headings to questions. Using this article as an example, you might ask, “What are the ways to improve memory?” The third step is to Read the text carefully trying to answer the questions. After reading, the next step is to Reflect on the material. One way would be to create your own examples of how the principles you are reading could be applied. The next step is to Recite the material after reading it. That is, put the book aside or look away and try to recall or to recite what you have just read. If you cannot bring it to mind now, you will have little chance later. The last step in PQ4R is to Review. After you have read the entire chapter, go through it again trying to recall and to summarize its main points.
Tests of the PQ4R method of reading text material have shown its advantages over the way people normally read. However, PQ4R method slows reading considerably, so students may not use the technique, even though it is more effective. Most mnemonic devices involve additional work, but they are well worth the investment for improving memory.
D Other Techniques
The principles of encoding, recoding, and retrieval discussed elsewhere in this article suggest other ways that memory can be improved. For example, encoding information in an elaborate, meaningful way helps in retention. There are many ways to encode information meaningfully. When possible, try to convert verbal information into mental images. When learning about events and facts, try to focus on their meaning rather than their superficial characteristics. Relating new information to your personal experiences or to what you already know also makes it easier to retain the information.
Spacing out study sessions is another way to improve your memory. That is, if you are going to read a chapter twice before a test, retention is better if you allow some time to pass between readings, instead of reading the chapter twice in one sitting. Overall, spaced learning or spaced practice (learning opportunities that are spread out in time) is better than massed practice (back-to-back practice, in immediate succession) for retaining facts and skills over longer intervals. However, if a test occurs soon after learning, massed practice is as good as or better than spaced practice.
If you are having difficulty retrieving facts from your memory, try to remember the setting in which you originally learned them. This advice capitalizes on the encoding specificity principle. The more similar the retrieval environment is to the learning environment, the easier it will be to retrieve the information learned.
Contributed By:
Henry L. Roediger

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