Chapter 6: Memory

Part One: From Ebbinghaus to Encoding

Part Two: Different Types of Memory

Part Three: Biological Perspectives on Memory

Part Four: Memory Improvement

Part Five: Extraordinary Memorists


Overview of Chapter 6: Memory

Memory feels like a dip into the past, but actually memory takes place in the present moment. It uses information stored in the past and in some cases reconstructs events from the past. This is like baking a cake using a recipe. The result can be a reasonably good copy of what came before, or it can turn out to be totally different. Memory processes are creative processes, and memory errors are more common than most people think.

Memory research is one of the oldest forms of experimental research in psychology, but it really blossomed in the 1960s and 1970s. During those decades memory research became a hot area. The so-called encoding revolution marked the end of stimulus-response inherited from mid-20th Century behaviorism and the beginning of the information processing approach that increasingly predominates in 21st Century experimental psychology. Biological theories came to the forefront with the emergence of the neurosciences in the 1980s and 1990s, and in the 21st Century large scale memory processes can be visualized in brain scans.

In present-day psychology, memory is not regarded as a single process or a single system. It occurs in multiple systems operating in parallel. To some extent, each different system in the brain has its own memory. This contrasts with the assumption common during psychology's first century (1860-1960) that memory was a single system shared by different parts of the brain. Large-scale, integrated, event memories are now regarded as one important type of memory… but only one type.

The topic of memory is one of practical importance. College students are confronted every day with the necessity of using their memory. Research on memory can help students understand why some study habits work, while others do little good. We will see (in "What Should a Student Do?") that repetition and effort, by themselves, have little effect on memory. Much more important is the cultivation of interest and attention to detail, plus a good night's sleep after studying.

How this chapter is organized

The first section starts with the oldest tradition of memory research, that of Ebbinghaus. We will examine Ebbinghaus's rationale for using nonsense syllables. We will see how the effort to remove meaning from memory research failed and how the "encoding revolution" in memory research focused new attention on the ways people manipulate information.

Next we examine the different types of memory documented by researchers in recent decades. Some examples are semantic memory, procedural memory, episodic memory, and implicit memory. The section titled "Biological Perspectives on Memory" examines research on the brain processes that influence memory. We will find that memory benefits from a little adrenaline...but not too much. A section on memory improvement examines other ways memory is enhanced. We review classic techniques such as mnemonic systems, then we address the question of how a student might best improve memory for academic material.

Finally, we end the chapter with a look at people with fantastic memories of various types. Although each extraordinary memorist uses a different approach, one can find common elements in their techniques, and we try to draw some conclusions for ordinary people based on the unusually capable memories of these individuals.

Related topics in other chapters

Chapter 3 (States of Consciousness) discusses hypnosis and memory. The Conditioning chapter (Chapter 5) discusses acquisition of classical and operant conditioned responses, a form of learning and memory. Memory turns up in Chapter 11 (Personality Theories) in Freud's concept of repression and in Chapter 13 (Therapies) in Adler's diagnostic use of early memories. Chapter 14 (Frontiers of Psychology) discusses eyewitness testimony and cryptomnesia in the context of Psychology and Law.


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