Human Memory & Cognition

What is memory? Apologies for commencing with a naively under-estimated question likened to that asked by a small child or perhaps a tiresome teenager. However, in this case, to ask such a question will not result in futility or a slammed door. The point here is to illustrate that the existence of memory has far more widely reaching implications than the lay person might at first suspect. Without memory there would be no past. There would be no ability to employ previously learned skills, no recall of names and places or the ability to recognise a face. There would be only a ‘present’, one that would not necessarily be our own. There would be no personal identity, no recollection of past days, minutes or even seconds, much like the day-to-day blur that is the heavyweight student’s life, who no doubt feels a sense of ‘nothingness’ on a regular basis, not forgetting the severe head pains also.

The point is that individuals would not have a sense of identity was it not for memory. The notion of ‘self’ relies upon a ‘continuity of memories that link our yesterdays to our todays’, an eloquently assembled statement by Gleitman (1995). Thus, the intention of asking ‘what is memory?’ was to understand the importance of it and to comprehend the vast field that makes up ‘memory’ which is open for psychologists to explore and exploit (notice the similarity between those 2 last words). The fact that very little was known about memory in general obviously makes this an ideal arena for unbeknownst psychologists to gain notoriety in the field, and money, of course. Many such candidates have taken advantage of this opportunity. Subsequently their work has not only paved the way for would-be psychologists to understand the terms and depths of memory to a fuller extent, but has given lecturers the opportunity of requiring dissertations on memory research from up-and-coming psychologists currently taking their psychology degree courses.

With the importance of memory firmly grasped, it is not surprising that a vast amount of work has been done investigating it. Certain notable investigations, namely Craik & Lockhart (1972) for the purpose of this dissertation, have re-aligned psychological research in a fresher direction than they were heading in before.

The ‘Stage Theory of Memory’ was the first plausible hypothesis of the mechanics of memory. The crude notions of Broadbent (1958); Waugh & Norman (1965) and Atkinson & Shiffrin (1968) to name but a few, argued that memory consists of several ‘storage systems’ due to the fact that memory can delve into the past but at the same time recollect experiences that happened moments before. They accounted for this diversity by way of hypothetical storage structures, like a warehouse for example. With hindsight it is possible to chuckle at the rudimentary appraisals of memory, but at the time they were given serious consideration and even paved the way for more enlightening research in the future.

The notorious ‘short-term’ (referred to hereon as STM) and ‘long-term’ memory (LTM) labels were spawned from stage theory research. STM is characterised by being very limited and experiments by investigators such as George Miller (1956), for example, gave physicality to the quantity of items that can be stored. LTM however is credited with a larger memory span, some 80,000 words or so.

The Stage Theory of Memory asserts that there is a definite path that is taken for items that are ‘promoted’ from STM to LTM. By way of preposterously mechanical processes it is argued that STM should be viewed as a ‘loading platform’ where ‘parcels’ (memories) await the fork-lift truck journey to the huge ‘memory warehouse’, a warehouse that even Tesco would be proud of. Those ‘parcels’ that ‘sit’ on the ‘loading platform’ for long enough will eventually be taken to the memory warehouse, but most do not make it. It is this notion that dominated memory research in the 50s and 60s. ‘Decay’ and ‘displacement’ were suggested as reasons why some memories are remembered and others not. What is significant here is that all items were assumed to have been ‘entered’ into the memory structure, and it is the manual retrieval of them that is failing, thus causing forgetfulness. Later research turns its back on this notion and suggests that successful