The Concept of Encoding

The word encoding refers to interpretation or understanding of a stimulus. Often the errors a subject makes are an important clue to how the subject encoded the stimulus. Miller, Galanter, and Pribram (1960) continued the story of their hypothetical subject this way:

What is a one-word synonym for encoding?

That MIBery-misery association wasn't too good, however, because for two or three trials through the list he remembered MIS instead of MIB. But he finally worked it out by thinking of "mibery" as a new word meaning "false misery."

Two points can be made from this example. One is that people will resort to elaborate strategies that would seem to add substantially to the demand on memory, yet it helps them. This is the way memory naturally works...by adding in supplementary, meaningful information whenever necessary. Second, the example shows that encoding or interpretation of a stimulus item (such as "MIB") can be revealed by exploring errors a subject makes. Of course, the experimenter would have to ask the subject why he made the error "MIS" to find this out, so the investigation of encoding effects depends partly upon introspection. It is not very difficult introspection; most people can tell you how they interpret something while trying to memorize it.

What is elaborative encoding?

In general, embedding memory in a detailed surrounding or context actually helps you remember it later. Think of a big neural network in the brain. Every association (relationship to an existing idea) is like a pathway back to the memory. If the memory is richly connected to other information in memory, it is easier to retrieve later. When subjects use elaboration to help remember items on a memory test, researchers call this elaborative encoding. Elaborative encoding helps memory by providing information that aids retrieval.


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Copyright © 2007 Russ Dewey