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The Mechanics of Memory

The Mechanics of Memory

Memory is the ability to retain and to recall personal experiences, information, and various skills and habits. While memory is easy to define, there is no agreement among researchers to explain how it works, and scientists have not yet established a model for the actual mechanics of memory that is consistent with the subjective nature of consciousness.

Dr. Daniel L. Schacter, a Harvard professor of psychology and an expert on memory, states that subjectivity in the process of remembering involves at least three important aspects: Memories are mental constructs fashioned in accordance with the present needs, desires, and influences of the individual; memories are often accompanied by emotions and feelings; and the actual act of remembering something usually involves a conscious awareness of the memory.

In the twenty-first century, some scientists favor the comparison of the brain to a computer and memories as programs that have been encoded into the system. Behaviorists argue that memories, and the thinking process in general, are products of learned behavior.

Many researchers have long observed that the more traumatic an experience, the more likely an individual is to recall it later. Neuroscientists point to numerous current studies that indicate that memory involves a set of encoded neural connections that can occur in several parts of the brain. The more powerful the images accompanying an event, the more the brain is stimulated and likely to make it a part of long-term memory.

Although scientists have yet to understand how memory really works, a survey of psychologists conducted in 1996 revealed that 84 percent of them believed that every experience a person undergoes throughout his or her life is stored in the mind. However, a great many current studies suggest that such is not the case. An increasing amount of research on memory indicates that every moment of every bit of sensory data experienced by individuals throughout the course of their normal day-today life process is not retained by the brain and is not able to be recalled at some future time. Rather than the brain serving as a kind of repository for a complete audio or video recording of everything that has ever happened to a person, the only memories that are stored are bits and fragments of one's more meaningful experiences that are somehow encoded in engrams within the neural network of the brain. The process of memory involves an act of consciousness that withdraws a significant or emotional event in an episodic montage or collage of images, rather than a complete recall of sensory data.

Scientists believe that long-term memory requires an extensive encoding in the inner part of the temporal lobes of the brain. Most memories are lost, because they were never successfully encoded. Strong encoding of a memory may depend upon the individual's interests, perception, and needs. Thinking and talking about an experience at the time it occurred will also assist in an encoding that may be recalled at a later time.

Scientists believe that they may have discovered a biological reason why two people who witnessed the same event may, several years later, have different memories of what really occurred. According to research conducted at the Center for Neural Science at New York University by Drs. Karim Nader and Glenn Shafe, every time an older memory is recalled and is brought into consciousness by an individual, the brain reassembles it, updates it, and makes new proteins before placing the memory back in long-term storage. Dr. Daniel L. Schacter commented that the research of Nader and Shafe had offered the first good neurobiological explanation of the method in which memories may be updated. Schacter added that it is a mistake to believe that once the brain has recorded a memory it remains forever fixed.

Some scientists have theorized that existing older memories may eventually be erased in the brain by a process that involves the generation of new neurons. The clearing out of certain memories to make more room for newer ones may be important in order to store more recent memories and information. Joe Tsien and his colleagues at the Department of Molecular Biology at Princeton University reported their discovery that the generation of new neurons is important for the memory-clearance process and suggested that chronic abnormalities in the clearance process may contribute to the memory disorder associated with Alzheimer's disease.

Although numerous anecdotal accounts claim that dreams are a vital element in the process of encoding information absorbed during the waking hours as memories, Dr. Jerome Siegel, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, released his findings to the contrary in 2002. He argued that there is no solid evidence to indicate that dreams are needed to consolidate memories. In addition, Siegel contested the hypothesis that the prevention of rapid-eye-movement sleep blocked memory formation.


Certain studies on memory show that people often construct their memories after the fact and that they may be susceptible to suggestions from others as to the "truth" of what actually occurred. Therefore, it is possible to create false memories in some people's minds by suggesting that certain events have happened to them when, in fact, such circumstances never occurred.

Closely related to false memories, which may be instilled within certain individuals' minds, is source amnesia in which people accurately recall an event, but forget the source of the memory. People may remember the details of a terrible blizzard that their grandparents recounted so vividly to them when they were children that they later incorporate their grandparents' experience as a part of their own memories and tell the story to others as if it had happened to them. Likewise, children seeing dramatic portrayals of hardships or disasters in the theaters or on their television screens may in their adult years remember those depictions as their own memories of enduring difficult times. Scientific studies indicate that such memories of a memory that happened to someone else is commonand suggest that one's memory of an event is not the most reliable record of what actually occurred.

Memory researchers, such as Schacter, list several types of memory systems. Semantic memory reveals conceptual and factual information stored by the brain. Procedural memory is the facility of recollection that permits one to learn new skills and retain habits. Episodic memory is the ability to remember those personal experiences that define one's life and individuality.

In addition, scientists recognize field memory, a process of recollection wherein one, as if in a dream, sees oneself in the scene. Observer memories are those memories in which the remembrance is perceived through one's own eyes.

Researchers as early as Sigmund Freud (18561939) have theorized that the fact that so many memories appear to be field memories is additional evidence that for many people the process of recalling a particular memory may be largely reconstructive. Freud also is famous for his theory of memory repression, in which he asserted that unpleasant memories, especially those involving sexual abuse or misbehavior, were pushed back or repressed by the psyche of the individual. Such repression could in later years lead to phobias or neuroses that could be healed by psychoanalysis.

In 2001 Michael Anderson, a psychologist at the University of Oregon, conducted a memory repression experiment with college students. The study supported Freud's theory about the mind's ability to repress thoughts, especially painful or disturbing ones, according to Martin Conway, a psychologist at the University of Bristol in England. Additional findings at the University of Oregon revealed the results of a study of children that disclosed that they were less likely to recall abuse at the hands of their parents or guardians than a stranger, quite likely because the children had to forget in order to cope with their daily lives.


Delving Deeper

Ashcraft, Mark H. Human Memory and Cognition. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Publishing, 1994.

Loftus, Elizabeth F. Memory: Surprising New Insights into How We Remember and Why We Forget. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Publishing, 1980.

"New Memories Erase Old by Generating New Neurons," UniSciDaily University Science News. 6 December 2001. [Online] http://unisci.com/stories/20014/1206014.htm.

Pinker, Steven. How the Mind Works. New York: W. W. Norton, 1999.

Schacter, Daniel L. Searching for MemoryThe Brain, the Mind, and the Past. New York: Basic Books, 1996.


False Memories

The ease with which a false memory could be created was demonstrated by an experiment conducted in 2001 by University of Washington memory researchers Jacquie E. Pickrell and Dr. Elizabeth F. Loftus. About one-third of the 120 subjects in the experiment who were exposed to a fake advertisement showing Bugs Bunny at Disneyland later said that they had also met the cartoon character when they visited Disneyland and had even shaken his hand. Such a scenario could never have occurred in real life, because Bugs Bunny is a cartoon character owned by Warner Brothers and would not be seen walking around Disneyland with such cartoon creations as Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck.

Pickrell, a doctoral student in psychology, stated that the study suggested how easily a false memory can be created and just how vulnerable and malleable memory is. The experiment also demonstrated how people might create many of their autobiographical references and memories. Even the nostalgic advertising employed by many commercial companies can lead individuals to remember experiences that they never really had.

Loftus, professor of psychology and adjunct professor of law at the University of Washington, began her research into memory distortion in the 1970s. When she wrote an article on creating false memories for the September 1997 issue of Scientific American, Loftus and her students had conducted more than 200 experiments documenting how exposure to misinformation may induce memory distortion. Loftus and her colleagues found that memories are more easily modified when a significant amount of time has passed between the event and the recollection. The researchers also found that individuals who have witnessed a particular event, such as an automobile accident, may have their recollections distorted when they are later exposed to new and misleading information concerning the event.

While it is understandable that details of a particular memory might change over time, Loftus and her research associate, Pickrell, decided to undertake the challenge of determining how false memories could be implanted in an individual's mind. Over the course of a series of interviews, 29 percent of the 24 subjects claimed to remember a fictitious event that had been constructed for them by the researchers. In two follow-up interviews, 25 percent continued to insist that the event had actually occurred to them. "The study provides evidence that people can be led to remember their past in different ways," Loftus said, "and they can be coaxed into 'remembering' entire events that never happened."

Loftus's more than 30 years of research into the various processes of memory have led her to suggest that false memories are often created by three common methods: yielding to social or professional demands to recall particular events; imagining events when experiencing difficulty remembering; and being encouraged to abandon critical thinking regarding the truth of their memory constructions.

False memories, according to Loftus and her research colleagues, are most often constructed "by combining actual memories with the content of suggestions received from others." During such a process, individuals may experience source confusion and forget how much of the memory is valid and how much came from external sources.

In March 1998, a report commissioned by the Royal College of Psychiatrists in England accused its own members of having destroyed innocent lives by implanting false memories by using irresponsible techniques of delving into patients' childhood events. According to the report, nearly 1,000 parents stated that they had been falsely accused of sexual abuse after their adult children allegedly recovered such memories of the attacks during psychotherapy.

Dr. Sydney Brandon, emeritus professor of psychiatry at Leicester University, warned his colleagues that such incidents of alleged recovered memories could bring the whole of psychiatry into disrepute. When such memories of abuse are brought forth after long periods, sometimes decades of amnesia, Brandon said, there is a high probability that they are false.

In the November 1998 issue of the journal Psychological Science, Dr. C. J. Brainerd and Dr. V. F. Reyna of the University of Arizona in Tucson published their findings that many individuals often believed more strongly in suggested, false memories than in actual recollections of events. Police interviews and psychotherapy sessions are structured around a theme that is designed to help a witness or a patient remember scenes of the past. Psychoanalysis is motivated by the task of uncovering a past trauma and may involve a series of questions that may lead a patient to accept a suggested, rather than an actual, truth. When strong themes are operative in such explorations of memory, the researchers state, things that were not really experienced can seem more real to the individual than his or her actual experiences.

Delving Deeper

Ashcraft, Mark H. Human Memory and Cognition. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Publishing, 1994.

Associated Press. "Study of Mind's Ability to Repress Backs Freud." The New York Times, March 15, 2001. [Online] http://www.nytimes.com/2001/03/15/health/16ap-memory.html.

Loftus, Elizabeth F. "Creating False Memories." Scientific American, September 1997, 7175.

. Memory: Surprising New Insights into How We Remember and Why We Forget. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Publishing, 1980.

Loftus, Elizabeth F., and Katherine Ketcham. The Myth of Repressed Memory. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994.

"New Memories Erase Old by Generating New Neurons." UniSciDaily University Science News, December 6, 2001. [Online] http://unisci.com/stories/20014/1206614.htm.

Pinker, Steven. How the Mind Works. New York: W. W. Norton, 1999.

Schacter, Daniel L. Searching for MemoryThe Brain, the Mind, and the Past. New York: Basic Books, 1996.

. The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers. Boston, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin, 2001.

, ed. Memory Distortion: How Minds, Brains and Societies Reconstruct the Past. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997.

University of Washington. "New Evidence Shows False Memories Can Be Created," June 13, 2001. [Online] http://www.washington.edu.

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