Memory as a Construction

In the time of Ebbinghaus in the 1880s until the encoding revolution of the 1960s, memories were regarded as something like snapshots that could be retrieved whole. With the advent of the encoding perspective, scientists began to think more realistically about the storage requirements of human memories. They realized it would be far more efficient to store the instructions for creating a memory rather than the memory itself.

Why are "instructions" stored instead of whole memories?

To understand the distinction, think of how difficult it would be to store thousands of cakes. It would require a small warehouse. But thousands of recipes (instructions for making cakes) can be stored in a filing card box or small computer database. When it is time to "remember" a cake, the recipe is retrieved and the cake is baked again, following the instructions. This is much more efficient than storing whole cakes, and the same is true for memories. Memories are not "stored whole." Instead, we store data used to generate an image or word or scene from our past. Each time we remember something, we are producing a fresh construction.

Like a chef baking a cake, we can make errors in reconstructing memories. Sometimes we introduce changes that result in a totally different product. Memory errors are commonplace. Just because a memory feels real, this does not mean it is accurate.

A student gives this example:

How does the student's essay illustrate a commonplace occurrence?

Many years ago, my family and I lived in Mexico City, Mexico. We used to spend Christmas and other holidays in Acapulco, the site where the famous, daring cliff divers can be seen.

A few years ago, I was relating a very real experience to some of my friends, concerning the death of one of the divers and my witnessing it. The diver had gracefully flung himself off the cliff, misjudging the jagged rocks lining the water, and died on impact.

My parents overheard the conversation and later told me that although the event occurred, I had not been present at the time. Yet it all seemed so vivid to me: sitting on my Father's shoulders, peering over a crowd of tourists, massive cliffs, crashing waves, that diver, and the endless blue Pacific Ocean.

I'm sure this is an example of a construction that feels like a memory. Whether I remember this through a newspaper or the TV I don't know, but to this day it all seems so real. [Author's files]

Memory errors are a vexing problem for therapists who deal with recovered memories. People sometimes remember traumatic incidents from earlier in life, often with the encouragement of a therapist who expects to find them. It is very difficult to tell, without corroborating evidence, whether the incidents actually occurred as remembered. Memory problems are also problematic for lawyers. The advent of DNA testing revealed many cases in which eyewitness identification resulted in wrongful imprisonment. The problem is not easily remedied, because even when people are asked to take special care to avoid memory distortions, they still make them (Winkelspecht & Mowrer, 1999).

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Copyright © 2007 Russ Dewey