The study of memory dates back as far as the time of Ancient Greece, however, the birth of the study of memory is often credited to Ebbinghaus, who concentrated his research on memory store and capacity. The study of memory has had a long history, and still there are many myths associated with memory processes and the overall potential of memory. This paper will address one of the misconceptions which assumes that memory is a continuous tape of personal history. It will be shown that this is merely a false belief and that the act of remembering is not as simply as replaying a tape, rather memory is malleable and may be altered by a number of occurrences (Offer, 2000).
To effectively study memory it is first necessary to categorize different types of memory. There are dozens of ways to divide the specific different types of memory. These smaller categories all have very different characteristics and the acknowledgement of different types of memory makes the broad topic more manageable. First, there may be a distinction made between long term memory, short memory, and working memory. Within the long term memory, there are two main divisions; semantic and episodic memory. Semantic memories contain knowledge regarding the meanings of words, symbols, and algorithms. Episodic memories, on the other hand, include information of a personal nature. These memories capture the temporal and spatial context of a person’s past experiences and encode it in a narrative way. Because they are encoded as a narrative, an individual can recall the memories and essentially be telling a story (Lachman, Lachman, & Butterfield, 1979).
Autobiographical memories (episodic memories) are also referred to as personal event memories. These memories have several prominent characteristics: First, each memory corresponds to a specific moment or event, rather than a general event or series of events. Secondly, each memory contains many details of the personal circumstances associated with the memory. Finally, each is filled with sensory information that promotes a sense of reexperiencing the event (Pillemer, 1998). These memories contain information regarding place, actions, persons, objects, thoughts, and feelings (Barnier & McConkey, 1999).
The core features of autobiographical memories are based on three basic features of the memory system. First, it is constructive and reconstructive nature; secondly, it has an intimate relationship with the construction of self-identity; and finally, it has shifting accessibility.
The reconstructive and constructive nature of personal event memories can be seen in the evidence which shows that we gather information for these memories from many different sources. The first and primary source is typically the occurrence of the event. The event, in its self, provides a vast amount of information to be encoded. Following the experienced event however, the memory can be altered by many intruding sources. The memory will eventually reflect a trace of the original event memory which is tainted with information introduced from knowledge, expectations, and beliefs about the event. In a sense, we end up remembering the altered form of the memory, and each time we recall the memory it may be further altered from reality to a narrative and social act (Barnier & McConkey, 1999).
The relationship between autobiographical memory and ones self image is inseparable. In a sense, we remember our life details based on how we feel about our selves at the time we are trying to recall these memories. We will not necessary remember events and modify them, but we essentially will not remember the events at all, if they conflict with the presently experienced mood or self opinion (Barnier & McConkey, 1999). For example, if a person is feeling self-assured and confident it will be very difficult for them to recall instances in which they can see themselves in any other light.
The shifting accessibility of memory (and in particular autobiographical memory) is illustrated in instances where events that have been encoded in memory and have been previously recalled become inaccessible. This information will most likely become available again; however, the recall may need to be assisted. This assistance often comes from cues in the environment, which make the memory more salient.
Most of us posses a huge number of autobiographical memories, even though they are not necessarily accurate reports of our life events. Autobiographical memories or personal event memories are altered by many factors including the hindsight bias, age, culture, gender, and the level of emotion which was experienced at the time when the event occurred.
The hindsight bias is a phenomena which is seen when people form causal links between the outcomes and events leading up to it. Recently however, the term has also been used to refer to a function of reconstructive memory. When relying on this bias, people form causal links between the outcome and the antecedents that did not actually occur but are stereotypically associated with the outcome (Carli, 1999). These imagined sequences can be very convincing and may permanently change the individuals true memories of an event into an altered form which contains some fiction. The memory may move further and further towards the stereotypical case and not an event that actually occurred. The hindsight bias is one example of how schemas may effect memory. Schemas are generally very helpful in the recall process however, when memories are unclear, schemas based on stereotypes can be very misleading.
The development of memory occurs simultaneously with the awakening of consciousness. As we age and become more aware of our own existence and our environment, memory becomes more and more important. Eventually from basic memory, we develop different modalities of memory; intellectual, practical, and autobiographical. In general, the older a child becomes, the more he/she can remember and they develop their unique personality based on what they recall. Although memory is of the utmost importance, it is one of our fundamental talents that develops only with maturation, and in a sense can not be pushed. It has been shown that the development of memory can not be improved by any games or drills (Hoyt, 1999).
The age at which memory first develops can vary for each individual, however, it has been shown that it is very uncommon to have memories proceeding the age of two years. Most typically the memory starts to develop between 36 and 60 months with 24 months being the cut off point. The period in which we are not encoding long term memories is known as infantile amnesia. The common explanation for this phenomenon is that we store and access our memories through language, and since babies have no language for recording their experiences it is impossible to develop a narrative which is required in autobiographical memory. For this reason, all experiences of infancy are irretrievable even though the affects of experiences in infancy, such as those in attachment situations, can last a lifetime (Hoyt, 1999).
As we mature, we adopt a certain culture that undoubtedly becomes a huge part of all the aspects of our lives. The affect which culture has on personal event memories has largely been studied in experiments that compare memories of individuals in collectivist cultures with persons in individualistic cultures. Through this type of research it has been revealed that memories differ quite substantially depending on what aspect of the memory the individual considers important. Collectivist cultures are characterized by an emphasis on interdependence and an orientation towards society, whereas, individualistic cultures are characterized by an emphasis on independence and autonomy (Ji, Schwarz, & Nisbett, 2000).
In Western cultures it is common to see the self construed in reference to the individuals own thoughts, actions, and feelings. However, in Eastern cultures the self is inseparable from society and the situation. It has been shown that observable behaviors are better represented in the memory of individuals from a collectivist cultures and that the two groups also differ in the organization of their autobiographical memory. These cultural differences can be seen at a very early age and are readily noticeable in autobiographical reports (Ji, Schwarz, & Nisbett, 2000).
Autobiographical memories are believed to be retrieved through a strategic, cyclic process which is mediated by the central executive component of working memory (Goddard, Dritschel, & Burton, 1998). It is also believed that these neurological pathways operate differently in makes and females. For this reason, there have been several studies done which explore autobiographical recall differences in between the two genders. It has thus far been found that females have high personal event memories and low verbal memory, whereas males were the opposite, and had high verbal memory and low levels of autobiographical memory.
These results are often explained using a social evolution model, which says that males are more likely to set up a hierarchy or pecking order, and females are more likely to develop the sense of community by sharing past experiences (Goddard, Dritschel, & Burton, 1998). It is believed that females recall emotional and autobiographical memories more through conversation, whereas the conversations of males tends to be more oriented towards recall of factual information. Therefore, the personal event memories of females may be more rehearsed and organized and the males may be better rehearsed and organized in verbal and factual information (Goddard, Dritschel, & Burton, 1998).
Regardless of which gender is more able to recall autobiographical memories, each individuals encoding and retrieval process is affected by the emotion and the intensity of emotion experienced at that particular time. While experiencing an event which is to be encoding into personal event memory, high levels of emotion can dramatically affect what is transferred into the long term memory store. When an individual is highly aroused, the memory content is typically even more focused on how the person felt and not on the situation which caused them to feel that way. These individuals may have dramatic recollections of intense emotions, however they often will not remember specifics, as is the case with eyewitness testimony.
In these instances, it is often impossible to remember things such as colors and shapes in the environment. This often results in extraneous sources filling in the gaps in the memory to form a complete event. This information which is assimilated into the memory becomes as real as the parts of the memory which had actually occurred. People who experience traumatic events often retain a detailed memory of the event but tend to avoid situations that cause them to recall the memory. These memories are often unavailable to the individual because they are very intrusive and problematic for trauma survivors (Pillemer, 1998).
As a result of the affect which high levels of emotion have, it is often common to hear about cases where false memories were created about events which would have those emotions associated with them. It is possible that memories of traumatic events are avoided and buried for quite some time as a result of avoiding cues which cause the memory to be recalled, however, it is unlikely that these memories suddenly flood back with full strength and total accuracy. Some reported memories, which should cause skepticism, are those of implausible or impossible claims, such as memories of abuse at 6 months of age. The advancement of research in the field of false memories shows that it is almost impossible to tell the difference between real and false memories, if the false memory is of a possible event. Often the only way to distinguish between the two is if the false memory is biologically, geographically, or psychologically impossible because people can be confident that illusory memories are memories of events which actually occurred.
The two different types of personal event memories which are discussed most often are memories of traumatic events, which was previously mentioned, and flashbulb memories. These two categories of personal event memories are the most controversial and the most researched topics in the field of memory in the recent past.
Flashbulb memories are often studied as a separate entity and not combined with the study of other areas of memories, largely because flashbulb memories have several very distinct characteristics. These memories are typically overly rich in sensory details. People who have flashbulb memories essentially reexperience flashbacks of the event when the memory is recalled. Typically, the events which are encoded with such detail as to become flashbulb memories are usually traumatic or critical incidents. These memories also seem to be stored in an unusual way, in that they are not encoded in the typical narrative way (Pillemer, 1998). It should be noted that it is not yet fulled agreed that flashbulb memories exist. Many researchers believe it is as real as any other type of memory, while some researchers are convinced it is a dramatic reenactment by an over anxious or imaginative individual.
The current state of the research on all aspects of autobiographical memories directly impacts all of us. It is tremendously important for psychiatrists and health care professionals who rely on the historical and biographical memories of the patient to implement appropriate treatment (Offer, 2000). Currently the consensus is that in order to receive more accurate recollections, health care workers would need to consult family members and medical records to establish the validity of the patient’s memories (Offer, 2000).
The information is also crucial to law enforcers who are trying to make convictions based on eye witness testimony. It is important for these individuals to accept the scientific findings which suggest that memory is not a concrete thing, carved in stone. Our recollections of events are constantly changing, and the changes made are usually unavoidable. Not only are we susceptible to effects of time and memory decay, but we are also susceptible to hundreds of other influencing sources.
It is likely that the study of memory will continue indefinitely, or at least until we have the current controversial issues settled. When we understand more about our minds and our memories, we will know much more about our pasts and ourselves. Continuing the search for answers in this field will help society as a whole, and directly help individuals who have troubled pasts, which may or may not have actually occurred.
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