Memory construction definition

Major brain regions necessary

Human memory routinely performs amazing events with effortless ease. Experiences decades old can be vividly recalled with the subtlest of triggers. But our brains are not like a computer hard drive inside our heads where details are laid down and recalled with absolute fidelity. Memory is a creative process like visual perception. Memories are malleable, they can be changed, fused, created, altered, and lost. They are susceptible to other people’s suggestions and leading questions. Memory researcher Daniel Schacter writes: “memories for individual events resemble jigsaw puzzles that are assembled from many pieces, ” it is normal for people to “knit together the relevant fragments and feelings into a coherent narrative or story.” (Schacter, 1996)

Psychologists divide memory into two sections, explicit and implicit (also known respectively as declarative and procedural memory). Implicit memories exist without our awareness. They are skill based; what we remember without thinking, like riding a bike or playing the piano. Explicit memory is divided into short term and long term. Short term or working memory is the RAM (random access memory) of our minds. Unless reinforced, it typically retains bits of information for fifteen or twenty seconds and is limited to seven (plus or minus two) at one time. If a new object is added to short term memory than one of the current objects drops out and is forgotten. Long term memory is composed of semantic elements and episodic elements. Semantic memory is knowledge of the world and abstract information like words, definitions, procedures, historical dates etc. Episodic memory includes personal experiences and life’s events like our childhood and what happened at work yesterday. These one-time memories are much more fragile than over-learned ones like semantic or implicit memories. Therefore it is these memories that are most unreliable and capricious.

Gradually we have moved from a video camera conception of memory to a reconstructionist view. Memory does not passively record facts and file them away; rather the process is a creative amalgamation of fact and fantasy. It is an interpretive construction that cannot be absolutely verified without external corroborating evidence. Memory moves from short term to long term storage in a process called consolidation. If consolidation does not take place then the experience will be forgotten when it leaves short term memory. But even if memories reach long term storage with little distortion there is no guarantee that it will remain that way. Memories naturally decay over time. The more time that has passed since an experience has been recalled the more likely that distortion or forgetting has occurred. This might be a major cause of childhood amnesia; children rarely remember anything before the age of three probably because they cannot rehearse or discuss memories which causes them to decay and disappear. Even with frequent recall and retelling, however, there are no guarantees. As we recall a memory we focus on some aspects and ignore others; over time this can change the memory because the disregarded aspects are weakened or lost. Gradual repetition and rehearsal of slightly different versions of the memory alter it without our awareness, creating distorted memories. No recall is like the previous recall. Experimental psychologist Frederic Bartlett first made this point in his landmark 1932 text, Remembering: A Study in Experimental and Social Psychology. “Some widely held views have to be completely discarded, ” he wrote, “and none more completely than that which treats recall as the re-excitement in some way of fixed and changeless ‘traces.’” To the contrary, he believed that remembering is “an imaginative reconstruction, or construction, built out of the relation of our attitude toward a whole active mass of organized past reactions or experience.” (Bartlett, 1932)

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