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5 Chapter 5 – Memory

OpenStax; Rose M. Spielman; William J. Jenkins; and Marilyn D. Lovett

Chapter Contents

  • 5.1   How Memory Functions
  • 5.2   Parts of the Brain Involved with Memory
  • 5.3   Problems with Memory
  • 5.4   Ways to Enhance Memory

Introduction

research on memory finds that quizlet

We may be top-notch learners, but if we don’t have a way to store what we’ve learned, what good is the knowledge we’ve gained?

Take a few minutes to imagine what your day might be like if you could not remember anything you had learned. You would have to figure out how to get dressed. What clothing should you wear, and how do buttons and zippers work? You would need someone to teach you how to brush your teeth and tie your shoes. Who would you ask for help with these tasks, since you wouldn’t recognize the faces of these people in your house? Wait . . . is this even your house? Uh oh, your stomach begins to rumble and you feel hungry. You’d like something to eat, but you don’t know where the food is kept or even how to prepare it. Oh dear, this is getting confusing. Maybe it would be best just go back to bed. A bed . . . what is a bed?

We have an amazing capacity for memory, but how, exactly, do we process and store information? Are there different kinds of memory, and if so, what characterizes the different types? How, exactly, do we retrieve our memories? And why do we forget? This chapter will explore these questions as we learn about memory.

5.1 How Memory Functions

Learning objectives.

  • Discuss the three basic functions of memory
  • Describe the three stages of memory storage
  • Describe and distinguish between procedural and declarative memory and semantic and episodic memory

Memory is an information processing system; therefore, we often compare it to a computer.  Memory  is the set of processes used to encode, store, and retrieve information over different periods of time ( Figure 5.2 ).

A diagram shows three boxes, placed in a row from left to right, respectively titled “Encoding,” “Storage,” and “Retrieval.” One right-facing arrow connects “Encoding” to “Storage” and another connects “Storage” to “Retrieval.”

LINK TO LEARNING

Watch  this video  for more information on some unexpected facts about memory.

We get information into our brains through a process called  encoding , which is the input of information into the memory system. Once we receive sensory information from the environment, our brains label or code it. We organize the information with other similar information and connect new concepts to existing concepts. Encoding information occurs through automatic processing and effortful processing.

If someone asks you what you ate for lunch today, more than likely you could recall this information quite easily. This is known as  automatic processing , or the encoding of details like time, space, frequency, and the meaning of words. Automatic processing is usually done without any conscious awareness. Recalling the last time you studied for a test is another example of automatic processing. But what about the actual test material you studied? It probably required a lot of work and attention on your part in order to encode that information. This is known as  effortful processing  ( Figure 5.3 ).

a person driving a car

What are the most effective ways to ensure that important memories are well encoded? Even a simple sentence is easier to recall when it is meaningful (Anderson, 1984). Read the following sentences (Bransford & McCarrell, 1974), then look away and count backwards from 30 by threes to zero, and then try to write down the sentences (no peeking back at this page!).

  • The notes were sour because the seams split.
  • The voyage wasn’t delayed because the bottle shattered.
  • The haystack was important because the cloth ripped.

How well did you do? By themselves, the statements that you wrote down were most likely confusing and difficult for you to recall. Now, try writing them again, using the following prompts: bagpipe, ship christening, and parachutist. Next count backwards from 40 by fours, then check yourself to see how well you recalled the sentences this time. You can see that the sentences are now much more memorable because each of the sentences was placed in context. Material is far better encoded when you make it meaningful.

There are three types of encoding. The encoding of words and their meaning is known as  semantic encoding . It was first demonstrated by William Bousfield (1935) in an experiment in which he asked people to memorize words. The 60 words were actually divided into 4 categories of meaning, although the participants did not know this because the words were randomly presented. When they were asked to remember the words, they tended to recall them in categories, showing that they paid attention to the meanings of the words as they learned them.

Visual encoding  is the encoding of images, and  acoustic encoding  is the encoding of sounds, words in particular. To see how visual encoding works, read over this list of words:  car, level, dog, truth, book, value . If you were asked later to recall the words from this list, which ones do you think you’d most likely remember? You would probably have an easier time recalling the words  car, dog, and  book , and a more difficult time recalling the words  level, truth,  and  value . Why is this? Because you can recall images (mental pictures) more easily than words alone. When you read the words  car, dog,  and  book  you created images of these things in your mind. These are concrete, high-imagery words. On the other hand, abstract words like  level, truth,  and  value  are low-imagery words. High-imagery words are encoded both visually and semantically (Paivio, 1986), thus building a stronger memory.

Now let’s turn our attention to acoustic encoding. You are driving in your car and a song comes on the radio that you haven’t heard in at least 10 years, but you sing along, recalling every word. In the United States, children often learn the alphabet through song, and they learn the number of days in each month through rhyme:  “ Thirty days hath September, / April, June, and November; / All the rest have thirty-one, / Save February, with twenty-eight days clear, / And twenty-nine each leap year.” These lessons are easy to remember because of acoustic encoding. We encode the sounds the words make. This is one of the reasons why much of what we teach young children is done through song, rhyme, and rhythm.

Which of the three types of encoding do you think would give you the best memory of verbal information? Some years ago, psychologists Fergus Craik and Endel Tulving (1975) conducted a series of experiments to find out. Participants were given words along with questions about them. The questions required the participants to process the words at one of the three levels. The visual processing questions included such things as asking the participants about the font of the letters. The acoustic processing questions asked the participants about the sound or rhyming of the words, and the semantic processing questions asked the participants about the meaning of the words. After participants were presented with the words and questions, they were given an unexpected recall or recognition task.

Words that had been encoded semantically were better remembered than those encoded visually or acoustically. Semantic encoding involves a deeper level of processing than the shallower visual or acoustic encoding. Craik and Tulving concluded that we process verbal information best through semantic encoding, especially if we apply what is called the self-reference effect. The  self-reference effect  is the tendency for an individual to have better memory for information that relates to oneself in comparison to material that has less personal relevance (Rogers, Kuiper & Kirker, 1977). Could semantic encoding be beneficial to you as you attempt to memorize the concepts in this chapter?

Once the information has been encoded, we have to somehow retain it. Our brains take the encoded information and place it in storage.  Storage  is the creation of a permanent record of information.

In order for a memory to go into storage (i.e., long-term memory), it has to pass through three distinct stages:  Sensory Memory ,  Short-Term Memory , and finally  Long-Term Memory . These stages were first proposed by Richard  Atkinson  and Richard  Shiffrin (1968). Their model of human memory ( Figure 5.4 ), called Atkinson-Shiffrin (A-S), is based on the belief that we process memories in the same way that a computer processes information.

A flow diagram consists of four boxes with connecting arrows. The first box is labeled “sensory input.” An arrow leads to the second box, which is labeled “sensory memory.” An arrow leads to the third box which is labeled “short-term memory (STM).” An arrow points to the fourth box, labeled “long-term memory (LTM),” and an arrow points in the reverse direction from the fourth to the third box. Above the short-term memory box, an arrow leaves the top-right of the box and curves around to point back to the top-left of the box; this arrow is labeled “rehearsal.” Both the “sensory memory” and “short-term memory” boxes have an arrow beneath them pointing to the text “information not transferred is lost.”

But A-S is just one model of memory. Others, such as Baddeley and Hitch (1974), have proposed a model where short-term memory itself has different forms. In this model, storing memories in short-term memory is like opening different files on a computer and adding information. The type of short-term memory (or computer file) depends on the type of information received. There are memories in visual-spatial form, as well as memories of spoken or written material, and they are stored in three short-term systems: a visuospatial sketchpad, an episodic buffer, and a phonological loop. According to Baddeley and Hitch, a central executive part of memory supervises or controls the flow of information to and from the three short-term systems.

Sensory Memory

In the Atkinson-Shiffrin model, stimuli from the environment are processed first in  sensory memory : storage of brief sensory events, such as sights, sounds, and tastes. It is very brief storage—up to a couple of seconds. We are constantly bombarded with sensory information. We cannot absorb all of it, or even most of it. And most of it has no impact on our lives. For example, what was your professor wearing the last class period? As long as the professor was dressed appropriately, it does not really matter what she was wearing. Sensory information about sights, sounds, smells, and even textures, which we do not view as valuable information, we discard. If we view something as valuable, the information will move into our short-term memory system.

One study of sensory memory researched the significance of valuable information on short-term memory storage. J. R. Stroop discovered a memory phenomenon in the 1930s: you will name a color more easily if it appears printed in that color, which is called the  Stroop effect . In other words, the word “red” will be named more quickly, regardless of the color the word appears in, than any word that is colored red. Try an experiment: name the colors of the words you are given in  Figure 5.5 . Do not read the words, but say the color the word is printed in. For example, upon seeing the word “yellow” in green print, you should say “green,” not “yellow.” This experiment is fun, but it’s not as easy as it seems.

Several names of colors appear in a font color that is different from the name of the color. For example, the word “red” is colored blue.

Short-Term Memory

Short-term memory (STM)  is a temporary storage system that processes incoming sensory memory; sometimes it is called working memory. Short-term memory takes information from sensory memory and sometimes connects that memory to something already in long-term memory. Short-term memory storage lasts about 20 seconds. George Miller (1956), in his research on the capacity of memory, found that most people can retain about 7 items in STM. Some remember 5, some 9, so he called the capacity of STM 7 plus or minus 2.

Think of short-term memory as the information you have displayed on your computer screen—a document, a spreadsheet, or a web page. Then, information in short-term memory goes to long-term memory (you save it to your hard drive), or it is discarded (you delete a document or close a web browser). This step of  rehearsal , the conscious repetition of information to be remembered, to move STM into long-term memory is called  memory consolidation .

You may find yourself asking, “How much information can our memory handle at once?” To explore the capacity and duration of your short-term memory, have a partner read the strings of random numbers ( Figure 8.6 ) out loud to you, beginning each string by saying, “Ready?” and ending each by saying, “Recall,” at which point you should try to write down the string of numbers from memory.

A series of numbers includes two rows, with six numbers in each row. From left to right, the numbers increase from four digits to five, six, seven, eight, and nine digits. The first row includes “9754,” “68259,” “913825,” “5316842,” “86951372,” and “719384273,” and the second row includes “6419,” “67148,” “648327,” “5963827,” “51739826,” and “163875942.”

Note the longest string at which you got the series correct. For most people, this will be close to 7, Miller’s famous 7 plus or minus 2. Recall is somewhat better for random numbers than for random letters (Jacobs, 1887), and also often slightly better for information we hear (acoustic encoding) rather than see (visual encoding) (Anderson, 1969).

Long-term Memory

Long-term memory (LTM)  is the continuous storage of information. Unlike short-term memory, the storage capacity of LTM has no limits. It encompasses all the things you can remember that happened more than just a few minutes ago to all of the things that you can remember that happened days, weeks, and years ago. In keeping with the computer analogy, the information in your LTM would be like the information you have saved on the hard drive. It isn’t there on your desktop (your short-term memory), but you can pull up this information when you want it, at least most of the time. Not all long-term memories are strong memories. Some memories can only be recalled through prompts. For example, you might easily recall a fact— “What is the capital of the United States?”—or a procedure—“How do you ride a bike?”—but you might struggle to recall the name of the restaurant you had dinner when you were on vacation in France last summer. A prompt, such as that the restaurant was named after its owner, who spoke to you about your shared interest in soccer, may help you recall the name of the restaurant.

Long-term memory is divided into two types: explicit and implicit ( Figure 8.7 ). Understanding the different types is important because a person’s age or particular types of brain trauma or disorders can leave certain types of LTM intact while having disastrous consequences for other types.  Explicit memories  are those we consciously try to remember and recall. For example, if you are studying for your chemistry exam, the material you are learning will be part of your explicit memory. (Note: Sometimes, but not always, the terms explicit memory and declarative memory are used interchangeably.)

Implicit memories  are memories that are not part of our consciousness. They are memories formed from behaviors. Implicit memory is also called non-declarative memory.

A diagram consists of three rows of boxes. The box in the top row is labeled “long-term memory”; a line from the box separates into two lines leading to two boxes on the second row, labeled “explicit (declarative)” and “implicit (non-declarative).” From each of the second row boxes, lines split and lead to two additional boxes. From the “explicit” box are two boxes labeled “episodic (experienced events)” and “semantic (knowledge and concepts).” From the “implicit” box are two boxes labeled “procedural (skills and actions)” and “emotional conditioning.”

Procedural memory  is a type of implicit memory: it stores information about how to do things. It is the memory for skilled actions, such as how to brush your teeth, how to drive a car, how to swim the crawl (freestyle) stroke. If you are learning how to swim freestyle, you practice the stroke: how to move your arms, how to turn your head to alternate breathing from side to side, and how to kick your legs. You would practice this many times until you become good at it. Once you learn how to swim freestyle and your body knows how to move through the water, you will never forget how to swim freestyle, even if you do not swim for a couple of decades. Similarly, if you present an accomplished guitarist with a guitar, even if he has not played in a long time, he will still be able to play quite well.

Declarative memory  has to do with the storage of facts and events we personally experienced. Explicit (declarative) memory has two parts: semantic memory and episodic memory. Semantic means having to do with language and knowledge about language. An example would be the question “what does  argumentative  mean?” Stored in our  semantic memory  is knowledge about words, concepts, and language-based knowledge and facts. For example, answers to the following questions are stored in your semantic memory:

  • Who was the first President of the United States?
  • What is democracy?
  • What is the longest river in the world?

Episodic memory  is information about events we have personally experienced. The concept of episodic memory was first proposed about 40 years ago (Tulving, 1972). Since then, Tulving and others have looked at scientific evidence and reformulated the theory. Currently, scientists believe that episodic memory is memory about happenings in particular places at particular times, the what, where, and when of an event (Tulving, 2002). It involves recollection of visual imagery as well as the feeling of familiarity (Hassabis & Maguire, 2007).

EVERYDAY CONNECTION

Can you remember everything you ever did or said.

Episodic memories are also called autobiographical memories. Let’s quickly test your autobiographical memory. What were you wearing exactly five years ago today? What did you eat for lunch on April 10, 2009? You probably find it difficult, if not impossible, to answer these questions. Can you remember every event you have experienced over the course of your life—meals, conversations, clothing choices, weather conditions, and so on? Most likely none of us could even come close to answering these questions; however, American actress Marilu  Henner , best known for the television show  Taxi, can remember. She has an amazing and highly superior autobiographical memory ( Figure 8.8 ).

Marilu Henner.

Very few people can recall events in this way; right now, only 12 known individuals have this ability, and only a few have been studied (Parker, Cahill & McGaugh 2006). And although  hyperthymesia  normally appears in adolescence, two children in the United States appear to have memories from well before their tenth birthdays.

Watch these  Part 1  and  Part 2  video clips on superior autobiographical memory from the television news show  60 Minutes .

So you have worked hard to encode (via effortful processing) and store some important information for your upcoming final exam. How do you get that information back out of storage when you need it? The act of getting information out of memory storage and back into conscious awareness is known as  retrieval . This would be similar to finding and opening a paper you had previously saved on your computer’s hard drive. Now it’s back on your desktop, and you can work with it again. Our ability to retrieve information from long-term memory is vital to our everyday functioning. You must be able to retrieve information from memory in order to do everything from knowing how to brush your hair and teeth, to driving to work, to knowing how to perform your job once you get there.

There are three ways you can retrieve information out of your long-term memory storage system: recall, recognition, and relearning.  Recall  is what we most often think about when we talk about memory retrieval: it means you can access information without cues. For example, you would use recall for an essay test.  Recognition  happens when you identify information that you have previously learned after encountering it again. It involves a process of comparison. When you take a multiple-choice test, you are relying on recognition to help you choose the correct answer. Here is another example. Let’s say you graduated from high school 10 years ago, and you have returned to your hometown for your 10-year reunion. You may not be able to recall all of your classmates, but you recognize many of them based on their yearbook photos.

The third form of retrieval is  relearning , and it’s just what it sounds like. It involves learning information that you previously learned. Whitney took Spanish in high school, but after high school she did not have the opportunity to speak Spanish. Whitney is now 31, and her company has offered her an opportunity to work in their Mexico City office. In order to prepare herself, she enrolls in a Spanish course at the local community center. She’s surprised at how quickly she’s able to pick up the language after not speaking it for 13 years; this is an example of relearning.

5.2 Parts of the Brain Involved with Memory

  • Explain the brain functions involved in memory
  • Recognize the roles of the hippocampus, amygdala, and cerebellum

Are memories stored in just one part of the brain, or are they stored in many different parts of the brain? Karl Lashley began exploring this problem, about 100 years ago, by making lesions in the brains of animals such as rats and monkeys. He was searching for evidence of the  engram : the group of neurons that serve as the “physical representation of memory” (Josselyn, 2010). First, Lashley (1950) trained rats to find their way through a maze. Then, he used the tools available at the time—in this case a soldering iron—to create lesions in the rats’ brains, specifically in the cerebral cortex. He did this because he was trying to erase the engram, or the original memory trace that the rats had of the maze.

Lashley did not find evidence of the engram, and the rats were still able to find their way through the maze, regardless of the size or location of the lesion. Based on his creation of lesions and the animals’ reaction, he formulated the  equipotentiality hypothesis : if part of one area of the brain involved in memory is damaged, another part of the same area can take over that memory function (Lashley, 1950). Although Lashley’s early work did not confirm the existence of the engram, modern psychologists are making progress locating it. Eric Kandel, for example, spent decades working on the synapse, the basic structure of the brain, and its role in controlling the flow of information through neural circuits needed to store memories (Mayford, Siegelbaum, & Kandel, 2012).

Many scientists believe that the entire brain is involved with memory. However, since Lashley’s research, other scientists have been able to look more closely at the brain and memory. They have argued that memory is located in specific parts of the brain, and specific neurons can be recognized for their involvement in forming memories. The main parts of the brain involved with memory are the amygdala, the hippocampus, the cerebellum, and the prefrontal cortex ( Figure 8.9 ).

An illustration of a brain shows the location of the amygdala, hippocampus, cerebellum, and prefrontal cortex.

The Amygdala

First, let’s look at the role of the  amygdala  in memory formation. The main job of the amygdala is to regulate emotions, such as fear and aggression ( Figure 8.9 ). The amygdala plays a part in how memories are stored because storage is influenced by stress hormones. For example, one researcher experimented with rats and the fear response (Josselyn, 2010). Using Pavlovian conditioning, a neutral tone was paired with a foot shock to the rats. This produced a fear memory in the rats. After being conditioned, each time they heard the tone, they would freeze (a defense response in rats), indicating a memory for the impending shock. Then the researchers induced cell death in neurons in the lateral amygdala, which is the specific area of the brain responsible for fear memories. They found the fear memory faded (became extinct). Because of its role in processing emotional information, the amygdala is also involved in memory consolidation: the process of transferring new learning into long-term memory. The amygdala seems to facilitate encoding memories at a deeper level when the event is emotionally arousing.

In this TED Talk called  “A Mouse. A Laser Beam. A Manipulated Memory,”  Steve Ramirez and Xu Liu from MIT talk about using laser beams to manipulate fear memory in rats. Find out why their work caused a media frenzy once it was published in  Science .

The Hippocampus

Another group of researchers also experimented with rats to learn how the  hippocampus  functions in memory processing ( Figure 8.9 ). They created lesions in the hippocampi of the rats, and found that the rats demonstrated memory impairment on various tasks, such as object recognition and maze running. They concluded that the hippocampus is involved in memory, specifically normal recognition memory as well as spatial memory (when the memory tasks are like recall tests) (Clark, Zola, & Squire, 2000). Another job of the hippocampus is to project information to cortical regions that give memories meaning and connect them with other connected memories. It also plays a part in memory consolidation: the process of transferring new learning into long-term memory.

Injury to this area leaves us unable to process new declarative memories. One famous patient, known for years only as H. M., had both his left and right temporal lobes (hippocampi) removed in an attempt to help control the seizures he had been suffering from for years (Corkin, Amaral, González, Johnson, & Hyman, 1997). As a result, his declarative memory was significantly affected, and he could not form new semantic knowledge. He lost the ability to form new memories, yet he could still remember information and events that had occurred prior to the surgery.

For a closer look at how memory works, view this  video  on quirks of memory, and read more in this  article  about patient HM.

The Cerebellum and Prefrontal Cortex

Although the hippocampus seems to be more of a processing area for explicit memories, you could still lose it and be able to create implicit memories (procedural memory, motor learning, and classical conditioning), thanks to your  cerebellum  ( Figure 8.9 ). For example, one classical conditioning experiment is to accustom subjects to blink when they are given a puff of air. When researchers damaged the cerebellums of rabbits, they discovered that the rabbits were not able to learn the conditioned eye-blink response (Steinmetz, 1999; Green & Woodruff-Pak, 2000).

Other researchers have used brain scans, including positron emission tomography (PET) scans, to learn how people process and retain information. From these studies, it seems the prefrontal cortex is involved. In one study, participants had to complete two different tasks: either looking for the letter  a  in words (considered a perceptual task) or categorizing a noun as either living or non-living (considered a semantic task) (Kapur et al., 1994). Participants were then asked which words they had previously seen. Recall was much better for the semantic task than for the perceptual task. According to PET scans, there was much more activation in the left inferior prefrontal cortex in the semantic task. In another study, encoding was associated with left frontal activity, while retrieval of information was associated with the right frontal region (Craik et al., 1999).

Neurotransmitters

There also appear to be specific neurotransmitters involved with the process of memory, such as epinephrine, dopamine, serotonin, glutamate, and acetylcholine (Myhrer, 2003). There continues to be discussion and debate among researchers as to which  neurotransmitter  plays which specific role (Blockland, 1996). Although we don’t yet know which role each neurotransmitter plays in memory, we do know that communication among neurons via neurotransmitters is critical for developing new memories. Repeated activity by neurons leads to increased neurotransmitters in the synapses and more efficient and more synaptic connections. This is how memory consolidation occurs.

It is also believed that strong emotions trigger the formation of strong memories, and weaker emotional experiences form weaker memories; this is called  arousal theory  (Christianson, 1992). For example, strong emotional experiences can trigger the release of neurotransmitters, as well as hormones, which strengthen memory; therefore, our memory for an emotional event is usually better than our memory for a non-emotional event. When humans and animals are stressed, the brain secretes more of the neurotransmitter glutamate, which helps them remember the stressful event (McGaugh, 2003). This is clearly evidenced by what is known as the flashbulb memory phenomenon.

A  flashbulb memory  is an exceptionally clear recollection of an important event ( Figure 8.10 ). Where were you when you first heard about the 9/11 terrorist attacks? Most likely you can remember where you were and what you were doing. In fact, a Pew Research Center (2011) survey found that for those Americans who were age 8 or older at the time of the event, 97% can recall the moment they learned of this event, even a decade after it happened.

the World Trade Center buildings, shortly after two planes were flown into them on the morning of September 11, 2001. Thick, black clouds of smoke stream from both buildings.

Inaccurate and False Memories

Even flashbulb memories can have decreased accuracy with the passage of time, even with very important events. For example, on at least three occasions, when asked how he heard about the terrorist attacks of 9/11, President George W. Bush responded inaccurately. In January 2002, less than 4 months after the attacks, the then sitting President Bush was asked how he heard about the attacks. He responded:

I was sitting there, and my Chief of Staff—well, first of all, when we walked into the classroom, I had seen this plane fly into the first building. There was a TV set on. And you know, I thought it was pilot error and I was amazed that anybody could make such a terrible mistake. (Greenberg, 2004, p. 2)

Contrary to what President Bush recalled, no one saw the first plane hit, except people on the ground near the twin towers. The first plane was not videotaped because it was a normal Tuesday morning in New York City, until the first plane hit.

Some people attributed Bush’s wrong recall of the event to conspiracy theories. However, there is a much more benign explanation: human memory, even flashbulb memories, can be frail. In fact, memory can be so frail that we can convince a person an event happened to them, even when it did not. In studies, research participants will recall hearing a word, even though they never heard the word. For example, participants were given a list of 15 sleep-related words, but the word “sleep” was not on the list. Participants recalled hearing the word “sleep” even though they did not actually hear it (Roediger & McDermott, 2000). The researchers who discovered this named the theory after themselves and a fellow researcher, calling it the Deese-Roediger-McDermott paradigm.

5.3 Problems with Memory

  • Compare and contrast the two types of amnesia
  • Discuss the unreliability of eyewitness testimony
  • Discuss encoding failure
  • Discuss the various memory errors
  • Compare and contrast the two types of interference

You may pride yourself on your amazing ability to remember the birthdates and ages of all of your friends and family members, or you may be able recall vivid details of your 5th birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese’s. However, all of us have at times felt frustrated, and even embarrassed, when our memories have failed us. There are several reasons why this happens.

Amnesia  is the loss of long-term memory that occurs as the result of disease, physical trauma, or psychological trauma. Psychologist Tulving (2002) and his colleagues at the University of Toronto studied K. C. for years. K. C. suffered a traumatic head injury in a motorcycle accident and then had severe amnesia. Tulving writes,

the outstanding fact about K.C.’s mental make-up is his utter inability to remember any events, circumstances, or situations from his own life. His episodic amnesia covers his whole life, from birth to the present. The only exception is the experiences that, at any time, he has had in the last minute or two. (Tulving, 2002, p. 14)

Anterograde Amnesia

There are two common types of amnesia: anterograde amnesia and retrograde amnesia ( Figure 8.11 ). Anterograde amnesia is commonly caused by brain trauma, such as a blow to the head. With  anterograde amnesia , you cannot remember new information, although you can remember information and events that happened prior to your injury. The hippocampus is usually affected (McLeod, 2011). This suggests that damage to the brain has resulted in the inability to transfer information from short-term to long-term memory; that is, the inability to consolidate memories.

Many people with this form of amnesia are unable to form new episodic or semantic memories, but are still able to form new procedural memories (Bayley & Squire, 2002). This was true of H. M., which was discussed earlier. The brain damage caused by his surgery resulted in anterograde amnesia. H. M. would read the same magazine over and over, having no memory of ever reading it—it was always new to him. He also could not remember people he had met after his surgery. If you were introduced to H. M. and then you left the room for a few minutes, he would not know you upon your return and would introduce himself to you again. However, when presented the same puzzle several days in a row, although he did not remember having seen the puzzle before, his speed at solving it became faster each day (because of relearning) (Corkin, 1965, 1968).

A single-line flow diagram compares two types of amnesia. In the center is a box labeled “event” with arrows extending from both sides. Extending to the left is an arrow pointing left to the word “past”; the arrow is labeled “retrograde amnesia.” Extending to the right is an arrow pointing right to the word “present”; the arrow is labeled “anterograde amnesia.”

Retrograde Amnesia

Retrograde amnesia  is loss of memory for events that occurred prior to the trauma. People with retrograde amnesia cannot remember some or even all of their past. They have difficulty remembering episodic memories. What if you woke up in the hospital one day and there were people surrounding your bed claiming to be your spouse, your children, and your parents? The trouble is you don’t recognize any of them. You were in a car accident, suffered a head injury, and now have retrograde amnesia. You don’t remember anything about your life prior to waking up in the hospital. This may sound like the stuff of Hollywood movies, and Hollywood has been fascinated with the amnesia plot for nearly a century, going all the way back to the film  Garden of Lies  from 1915 to more recent movies such as the Jason Bourne spy thrillers. However, for real-life sufferers of retrograde amnesia, like former NFL football player Scott Bolzan, the story is not a Hollywood movie. Bolzan fell, hit his head, and deleted 46 years of his life in an instant. He is now living with one of the most extreme cases of retrograde amnesia on record.

View the  video story  profiling Scott Bolzan’s amnesia and his attempts to get his life back.

Memory Construction and Reconstruction

The formulation of new memories is sometimes called  construction , and the process of bringing up old memories is called  reconstruction . Yet as we retrieve our memories, we also tend to alter and modify them. A memory pulled from long-term storage into short-term memory is flexible. New events can be added and we can change what we think we remember about past events, resulting in inaccuracies and distortions. People may not intend to distort facts, but it can happen in the process of retrieving old memories and combining them with new memories (Roediger and DeSoto, in press).

Suggestibility

When someone witnesses a crime, that person’s memory of the details of the crime is very important in catching the suspect. Because memory is so fragile, witnesses can be easily (and often accidentally) misled due to the problem of suggestibility.  Suggestibility  describes the effects of misinformation from external sources that leads to the creation of false memories. In the fall of 2002, a sniper in the DC area shot people at a gas station, leaving Home Depot, and walking down the street. These attacks went on in a variety of places for over three weeks and resulted in the deaths of ten people. During this time, as you can imagine, people were terrified to leave their homes, go shopping, or even walk through their neighborhoods. Police officers and the FBI worked frantically to solve the crimes, and a tip hotline was set up. Law enforcement received over 140,000 tips, which resulted in approximately 35,000 possible suspects (Newseum, n.d.).

Most of the tips were dead ends, until a white van was spotted at the site of one of the shootings. The police chief went on national television with a picture of the white van. After the news conference, several other eyewitnesses called to say that they too had seen a white van fleeing from the scene of the shooting. At the time, there were more than 70,000 white vans in the area. Police officers, as well as the general public, focused almost exclusively on white vans because they believed the eyewitnesses. Other tips were ignored. When the suspects were finally caught, they were driving a blue sedan.

As illustrated by this example, we are vulnerable to the power of suggestion, simply based on something we see on the news. Or we can claim to remember something that in fact is only a suggestion someone made. It is the suggestion that is the cause of the false memory.

Eyewitness Misidentification

Even though memory and the process of reconstruction can be fragile, police officers, prosecutors, and the courts often rely on eyewitness identification and testimony in the prosecution of criminals. However, faulty eyewitness identification and testimony can lead to wrongful convictions ( Figure 8.12 ).

A bar graph is titled “Leading cause of wrongful conviction in DNA exoneration cases (source: Innocence Project).” The x-axis is labeled “leading cause,” and the y-axis is labeled “percentage of wrongful convictions (first 239 DNA exonerations).” Four bars show data: “eyewitness misidentification” is the leading cause in about 75% of cases, “forensic science” in about 49% of cases, “false confession” in about 23% of cases, and “informant” in about 18% of cases.

How does this happen? In 1984, Jennifer Thompson, then a 22-year-old college student in North Carolina, was brutally raped at knifepoint. As she was being raped, she tried to memorize every detail of her rapist’s face and physical characteristics, vowing that if she survived, she would help get him convicted. After the police were contacted, a composite sketch was made of the suspect, and Jennifer was shown six photos. She chose two, one of which was of Ronald Cotton. After looking at the photos for 4–5 minutes, she said, “Yeah. This is the one,” and then she added, “I think this is the guy.” When questioned about this by the detective who asked, “You’re sure? Positive?” She said that it was him. Then she asked the detective if she did OK, and he reinforced her choice by telling her she did great. These kinds of unintended cues and suggestions by police officers can lead witnesses to identify the wrong suspect. The district attorney was concerned about her lack of certainty the first time, so she viewed a lineup of seven men. She said she was trying to decide between numbers 4 and 5, finally deciding that Cotton, number 5, “Looks most like him.” He was 22 years old.

By the time the trial began, Jennifer Thompson had absolutely no doubt that she was raped by Ronald Cotton. She testified at the court hearing, and her testimony was compelling enough that it helped convict him. How did she go from, “I think it’s the guy” and it “Looks most like him,” to such certainty? Gary Wells and Deah Quinlivan (2009) assert it’s suggestive police identification procedures, such as stacking lineups to make the defendant stand out, telling the witness which person to identify, and confirming witnesses choices by telling them “Good choice,” or “You picked the guy.”

After Cotton was convicted of the rape, he was sent to prison for life plus 50 years. After 4 years in prison, he was able to get a new trial. Jennifer Thompson once again testified against him. This time Ronald Cotton was given two life sentences. After serving 11 years in prison, DNA evidence finally demonstrated that Ronald Cotton did not commit the rape, was innocent, and had served over a decade in prison for a crime he did not commit.

To learn more about Ronald Cotton and the fallibility of memory, watch these excellent  Part 1  and  Part 2  videos by  60 Minutes .

Ronald Cotton’s story, unfortunately, is not unique. There are also people who were convicted and placed on death row, who were later exonerated. The Innocence Project is a non-profit group that works to exonerate falsely convicted people, including those convicted by eyewitness testimony. To learn more, you can visit http://www.innocenceproject.org.

Preserving Eyewitness Memory: The Elizabeth Smart Case

Contrast the Cotton case with what happened in the Elizabeth  Smart  case. When Elizabeth was 14 years old and fast asleep in her bed at home, she was abducted at knifepoint. Her nine-year-old sister, Mary Katherine, was sleeping in the same bed and watched, terrified, as her beloved older sister was abducted. Mary Katherine was the sole eyewitness to this crime and was very fearful. In the coming weeks, the Salt Lake City police and the FBI proceeded with caution with Mary Katherine. They did not want to implant any false memories or mislead her in any way. They did not show her police line-ups or push her to do a composite sketch of the abductor. They knew if they corrupted her memory, Elizabeth might never be found. For several months, there was little or no progress on the case. Then, about 4 months after the kidnapping, Mary Katherine first recalled that she had heard the abductor’s voice prior to that night (he had worked one time as a handyman at the family’s home) and then she was able to name the person whose voice it was. The family contacted the press and others recognized him—after a total of nine months, the suspect was caught and Elizabeth Smart was returned to her family.

The Misinformation Effect

Cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Loftus has conducted extensive research on memory. She has studied false memories as well as recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse. Loftus also developed the  misinformation effect paradigm , which holds that after exposure to incorrect information, a person may misremember the original event.

According to Loftus, an eyewitness’s memory of an event is very flexible due to the misinformation effect. To test this theory, Loftus and John Palmer (1974) asked 45 U.S. college students to estimate the speed of cars using different forms of questions ( Figure 8.13 ). The participants were shown films of car accidents and were asked to play the role of the eyewitness and describe what happened. They were asked, “About how fast were the cars going when they (smashed, collided, bumped, hit, contacted) each other?” The participants estimated the speed of the cars based on the verb used.

Participants who heard the word “smashed” estimated that the cars were traveling at a much higher speed than participants who heard the word “contacted.” The implied information about speed, based on the verb they heard, had an effect on the participants’ memory of the accident. In a follow-up one week later, participants were asked if they saw any broken glass (none was shown in the accident pictures). Participants who had been in the “smashed” group were more than twice as likely to indicate that they did remember seeing glass. Loftus and Palmer demonstrated that a leading question encouraged them to not only remember the cars were going faster, but to also falsely remember that they saw broken glass.

Photograph A shows two cars that have crashed into each other. Part B is a bar graph titled “perceived speed based on questioner’s verb (source: Loftus and Palmer, 1974).” The x-axis is labeled “questioner’s verb, and the y-axis is labeled “perceived speed (mph).” Five bars share data: “smashed” was perceived at about 41 mph, “collided” at about 39 mph, “bumped” at about 37 mph, “hit” at about 34 mph, and “contacted” at about 32 mph.

Controversies over Repressed and Recovered Memories

Other researchers have described how whole events, not just words, can be falsely recalled, even when they did not happen. The idea that memories of traumatic events could be repressed has been a theme in the field of psychology, beginning with Sigmund Freud, and the controversy surrounding the idea continues today.

Recall of false autobiographical memories is called  false memory syndrome . This syndrome has received a lot of publicity, particularly as it relates to memories of events that do not have independent witnesses—often the only witnesses to the abuse are the perpetrator and the victim (e.g., sexual abuse).

On one side of the debate are those who have recovered memories of childhood abuse years after it occurred. These researchers argue that some children’s experiences have been so traumatizing and distressing that they must lock those memories away in order to lead some semblance of a normal life. They believe that repressed memories can be locked away for decades and later recalled intact through hypnosis and guided imagery techniques (Devilly, 2007).

Research suggests that having no memory of childhood sexual abuse is quite common in adults. For instance, one large-scale study conducted by John Briere and Jon Conte (1993) revealed that 59% of 450 men and women who were receiving treatment for sexual abuse that had occurred before age 18 had forgotten their experiences. Ross Cheit (2007) suggested that repressing these memories created psychological distress in adulthood. The Recovered Memory Project was created so that victims of childhood sexual abuse can recall these memories and allow the healing process to begin (Cheit, 2007; Devilly, 2007).

On the other side, Loftus has challenged the idea that individuals can repress memories of traumatic events from childhood, including sexual abuse, and then recover those memories years later through therapeutic techniques such as hypnosis, guided visualization, and age regression.

Loftus is not saying that childhood sexual abuse doesn’t happen, but she does question whether or not those memories are accurate, and she is skeptical of the questioning process used to access these memories, given that even the slightest suggestion from the therapist can lead to misinformation effects. For example, researchers Stephen Ceci and Maggie Brucks (1993, 1995) asked three-year-old children to use an anatomically correct doll to show where their pediatricians had touched them during an exam. Fifty-five percent of the children pointed to the genital/anal area on the dolls, even when they had not received any form of genital exam.

Ever since Loftus published her first studies on the suggestibility of eyewitness testimony in the 1970s, social scientists, police officers, therapists, and legal practitioners have been aware of the flaws in interview practices. Consequently, steps have been taken to decrease suggestibility of witnesses. One way is to modify how witnesses are questioned. When interviewers use neutral and less leading language, children more accurately recall what happened and who was involved (Goodman, 2006; Pipe, 1996; Pipe, Lamb, Orbach, & Esplin, 2004). Another change is in how police lineups are conducted. It’s recommended that a blind photo lineup be used. This way the person administering the lineup doesn’t know which photo belongs to the suspect, minimizing the possibility of giving leading cues. Additionally, judges in some states now inform jurors about the possibility of misidentification. Judges can also suppress eyewitness testimony if they deem it unreliable.

“I’ve a grand memory for forgetting,” quipped Robert Louis Stevenson.  Forgetting  refers to loss of information from long-term memory. We all forget things, like a loved one’s birthday, someone’s name, or where we put our car keys. As you’ve come to see, memory is fragile, and forgetting can be frustrating and even embarrassing. But why do we forget? To answer this question, we will look at several perspectives on forgetting.

Encoding Failure

Sometimes memory loss happens before the actual memory process begins, which is encoding failure. We can’t remember something if we never stored it in our memory in the first place. This would be like trying to find a book on your e-reader that you never actually purchased and downloaded. Often, in order to remember something, we must pay attention to the details and actively work to process the information (effortful encoding). Lots of times we don’t do this. For instance, think of how many times in your life you’ve seen a penny. Can you accurately recall what the front of a U.S. penny looks like? When researchers Raymond Nickerson and Marilyn Adams (1979) asked this question, they found that most Americans don’t know which one it is. The reason is most likely encoding failure. Most of us never encode the details of the penny. We only encode enough information to be able to distinguish it from other coins. If we don’t encode the information, then it’s not in our long-term memory, so we will not be able to remember it.

Four illustrations of nickels have minor differences in the placement and orientation of text.

Memory Errors

Psychologist Daniel Schacter (2001), a well-known memory researcher, offers seven ways our memories fail us. He calls them the seven sins of memory and categorizes them into three groups: forgetting, distortion, and intrusion ( Table 8.1 ).

Sin Type Description Example
Transience Forgetting Accessibility of memory decreases over time Forget events that occurred long ago
absentmindedness Forgetting Forgetting caused by lapses in attention Forget where your phone is
Blocking Forgetting Accessibility of information is temporarily blocked Tip of the tongue
Misattribution Distortion Source of memory is confused Recalling a dream memory as a waking memory
Suggestibility Distortion False memories Result from leading questions
Bias Distortion Memories distorted by current belief system Align memories to current beliefs
Persistence Intrusion Inability to forget undesirable memories Traumatic events

Let’s look at the first sin of the forgetting errors:  transience , which means that memories can fade over time. Here’s an example of how this happens. Nathan’s English teacher has assigned his students to read the novel  To Kill a Mockingbird . Nathan comes home from school and tells his mom he has to read this book for class. “Oh, I loved that book!” she says. Nathan asks her what the book is about, and after some hesitation she says, “Well . . . I know I read the book in high school, and I remember that one of the main characters is named Scout, and her father is an attorney, but I honestly don’t remember anything else.” Nathan wonders if his mother actually read the book, and his mother is surprised she can’t recall the plot. What is going on here is storage decay: unused information tends to fade with the passage of time.

In 1885, German psychologist Hermann  Ebbinghaus  analyzed the process of memorization. First, he memorized lists of nonsense syllables. Then he measured how much he learned (retained) when he attempted to relearn each list. He tested himself over different periods of time from 20 minutes later to 30 days later. The result is his famous forgetting curve ( Figure 8.15 ). Due to storage decay, an average person will lose 50% of the memorized information after 20 minutes and 70% of the information after 24 hours (Ebbinghaus, 1885/1964). Your memory for new information decays quickly and then eventually levels out.

A line graph has an x-axis labeled “elapsed time since learning” with a scale listing these intervals: 0, 20, and 60 minutes; 9, 24, and 48 hours; and 6 and 31 days. The y-axis is labeled “retention (%)” with a scale of zero to 100. The line reflects these approximate data points: 0 minutes is 100%, 20 minutes is 55%, 60 minutes is 40%, 9 hours is 37%, 24 hours is 30%, 48 hours is 25%, 6 days is 20%, and 31 days is 10%.

Are you constantly losing your cell phone? Have you ever driven back home to make sure you turned off the stove? Have you ever walked into a room for something, but forgotten what it was? You probably answered yes to at least one, if not all, of these examples—but don’t worry, you are not alone. We are all prone to committing the memory error known as  absentmindedness . These lapses in memory are caused by breaks in attention or our focus being somewhere else.

Cynthia, a psychologist, recalls a time when she recently committed the memory error of absentmindedness.

When I was completing court-ordered psychological evaluations, each time I went to the court, I was issued a temporary identification card with a magnetic strip which would open otherwise locked doors. As you can imagine, in a courtroom, this identification is valuable and important and no one wanted it to be lost or be picked up by a criminal. At the end of the day, I would hand in my temporary identification. One day, when I was almost done with an evaluation, my daughter’s day care called and said she was sick and needed to be picked up. It was flu season, I didn’t know how sick she was, and I was concerned. I finished up the evaluation in the next ten minutes, packed up my tools, and rushed to drive to my daughter’s day care. After I picked up my daughter, I could not remember if I had handed back my identification or if I had left it sitting out on a table. I immediately called the court to check. It turned out that I had handed back my identification. Why could I not remember that? (personal communication, September 5, 2013)

When have you experienced absentmindedness?

“I just went and saw this movie called  Oblivion , and it had that famous actor in it. Oh, what’s his name? He’s been in all of those movies, like  The Shawshank Redemption  and  The Dark Knight  trilogy. I think he’s even won an Oscar. Oh gosh, I can picture his face in my mind, and hear his distinctive voice, but I just can’t think of his name! This is going to bug me until I can remember it!” This particular error can be so frustrating because you have the information right on the tip of your tongue. Have you ever experienced this? If so, you’ve committed the error known as  blocking : you can’t access stored information ( Figure 8.16 ).

Morgan Freeman.

Now let’s take a look at the three errors of distortion: misattribution, suggestibility, and bias.  Misattribution  happens when you confuse the source of your information. Let’s say Alejandro was dating Lucia and they saw the first Hobbit movie together. Then they broke up and Alejandro saw the second Hobbit movie with someone else. Later that year, Alejandro and Lucia get back together. One day, they are discussing how the Hobbit books and movies are different and Alejandro says to Lucia, “I loved watching the second movie with you and seeing you jump out of your seat during that super scary part.” When Lucia responded with a puzzled and then angry look, Alejandro realized he’d committed the error of misattribution.

What if someone is a victim of rape shortly after watching a television program? Is it possible that the victim could actually blame the rape on the person she saw on television because of misattribution? This is exactly what happened to Donald Thomson.

Australian eyewitness expert Donald Thomson appeared on a live TV discussion about the unreliability of eyewitness memory. He was later arrested, placed in a lineup and identified by a victim as the man who had raped her. The police charged Thomson although the rape had occurred at the time he was on TV. They dismissed his alibi that he was in plain view of a TV audience and in the company of the other discussants, including an assistant commissioner of police. . . . Eventually, the investigators discovered that the rapist had attacked the woman as she was watching TV—the very program on which Thomson had appeared. Authorities eventually cleared Thomson. The woman had confused the rapist’s face with the face that she had seen on TV. (Baddeley, 2004, p. 133)

The second distortion error is suggestibility. Suggestibility is similar to misattribution, since it also involves false memories, but it’s different. With misattribution you create the false memory entirely on your own, which is what the victim did in the Donald Thomson case above. With suggestibility, it comes from someone else, such as a therapist or police interviewer asking leading questions of a witness during an interview.

Memories can also be affected by  bias , which is the final distortion error. Schacter (2001) says that your feelings and view of the world can actually distort your memory of past events. There are several types of bias:

  • Stereotypical bias involves racial and gender biases. For example, when Asian American and European American research participants were presented with a list of names, they more frequently incorrectly remembered typical African American names such as Jamal and Tyrone to be associated with the occupation basketball player, and they more frequently incorrectly remembered typical White names such as Greg and Howard to be associated with the occupation of politician (Payne, Jacoby, & Lambert, 2004).
  • Egocentric bias involves enhancing our memories of the past (Payne et al., 2004). Did you really score the winning goal in that big soccer match, or did you just assist?
  • Hindsight bias happens when we think an outcome was inevitable after the fact. This is the “I knew it all along” phenomenon. The reconstructive nature of memory contributes to hindsight bias (Carli, 1999). We remember untrue events that seem to confirm that we knew the outcome all along.

Have you ever had a song play over and over in your head? How about a memory of a traumatic event, something you really do not want to think about? When you keep remembering something, to the point where you can’t “get it out of your head” and it interferes with your ability to concentrate on other things, it is called  persistence . It’s Schacter’s seventh and last memory error. It’s actually a failure of our memory system because we involuntarily recall unwanted memories, particularly unpleasant ones ( Figure 8.17 ). For instance, you witness a horrific car accident on the way to work one morning, and you can’t concentrate on work because you keep remembering the scene.

two soldiers physically fighting.

Interference

Sometimes information is stored in our memory, but for some reason it is inaccessible. This is known as interference, and there are two types: proactive interference and retroactive interference ( Figure 8.18 ). Have you ever gotten a new phone number or moved to a new address, but right after you tell people the old (and wrong) phone number or address? When the new year starts, do you find you accidentally write the previous year? These are examples of  proactive interference : when old information hinders the recall of newly learned information.  Retroactive interference  happens when information learned more recently hinders the recall of older information. For example, this week you are studying about Freud’s Psychoanalytic Theory. Next week you study the humanistic perspective of Maslow and Rogers. Thereafter, you have trouble remembering Freud’s Psychosexual Stages of Development because you can only remember Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

A diagram shows two types of interference. A box with the text “learn combination to high school locker, 17–04–32” is followed by an arrow pointing right toward a box labeled “memory of old locker combination interferes with recall of new gym locker combination, ??–??–??”; the arrow connecting the two boxes contains the text “proactive interference (old information hinders recall of new information.” Beneath that is a second part of the diagram. A box with the text “knowledge of new email address interferes with recall of old email address, nvayala@???” is followed by an arrow pointing left toward the “early event” box and away from another box labeled “learn sibling’s new college email address, npatel@siblingcollege.edu”; the arrow connecting the two boxes contains the text “retroactive interference (new information hinders recall of old information.”

5.4 Ways to Enhance Memory

  • Recognize and apply memory-enhancing strategies
  • Recognize and apply effective study techniques

Most of us suffer from memory failures of one kind or another, and most of us would like to improve our memories so that we don’t forget where we put the car keys or, more importantly, the material we need to know for an exam. In this section, we’ll look at some ways to help you remember better, and at some strategies for more effective studying.

Memory-Enhancing Strategies

What are some everyday ways we can improve our memory, including recall? To help make sure information goes from short-term memory to long-term memory, you can use  memory-enhancing strategies . One strategy is  rehearsal , or the conscious repetition of information to be remembered (Craik & Watkins, 1973). Think about how you learned your multiplication tables as a child. You may recall that 6 x 6 = 36, 6 x 7 = 42, and 6 x 8 = 48. Memorizing these facts is rehearsal.

Another strategy is  chunking : you organize information into manageable bits or chunks (Bodie, Powers, & Fitch-Hauser, 2006). Chunking is useful when trying to remember information like dates and phone numbers. Instead of trying to remember 5205550467, you remember the number as 520-555-0467. So, if you met an interesting person at a party and you wanted to remember his phone number, you would naturally chunk it, and you could repeat the number over and over, which is the rehearsal strategy.

Try this  fun activity  that employs a memory-enhancing strategy.

You could also enhance memory by using  elaborative rehearsal : a technique in which you think about the meaning of the new information and its relation to knowledge already stored in your memory (Tigner, 1999). For example, in this case, you could remember that 520 is an area code for Arizona and the person you met is from Arizona. This would help you better remember the 520 prefix. If the information is retained, it goes into long-term memory.

Mnemonic devices  are memory aids that help us organize information for encoding ( Figure 8.19 ). They are especially useful when we want to recall larger bits of information such as steps, stages, phases, and parts of a system (Bellezza, 1981). Brian needs to learn the order of the planets in the solar system, but he’s having a hard time remembering the correct order. His friend Kelly suggests a mnemonic device that can help him remember. Kelly tells Brian to simply remember the name Mr. VEM J. SUN, and he can easily recall the correct order of the planets:  M ercury,  V enus,  E arth,  M ars,  J upiter,  S aturn,  U ranus, and  N eptune. You might use a mnemonic device to help you remember someone’s name, a mathematical formula, or the order of mathematical operations.

a person’s two hands clenched into fists so the knuckles show. The knuckles are labeled with the months and the number of days in each month, with the knuckle protrusions corresponding to the months with 31 days, and the indentations between knuckles corresponding to February and the months with 30 days.

If you have ever watched the television show  Modern Family , you might have seen Phil Dunphy explain how he remembers names:

The other day I met this guy named Carl. Now, I might forget that name, but he was wearing a Grateful Dead t-shirt. What’s a band like the Grateful Dead? Phish. Where do fish live? The ocean. What else lives in the ocean? Coral. Hello, Co-arl. (Wrubel & Spiller, 2010)

It seems the more vivid or unusual the mnemonic, the easier it is to remember. The key to using any mnemonic successfully is to find a strategy that works for you.

Watch this fascinating  TED Talks lecture  titled “Feats of Memory Anyone Can Do.” The lecture is given by Joshua Foer, a science writer who “accidentally” won the U. S. Memory Championships. He explains a mnemonic device called the memory palace.

Some other strategies that are used to improve memory include expressive writing and saying words aloud. Expressive writing helps boost your short-term memory, particularly if you write about a traumatic experience in your life. Masao Yogo and Shuji Fujihara (2008) had participants write for 20-minute intervals several times per month. The participants were instructed to write about a traumatic experience, their best possible future selves, or a trivial topic. The researchers found that this simple writing task increased short-term memory capacity after five weeks, but only for the participants who wrote about traumatic experiences. Psychologists can’t explain why this writing task works, but it does.

What if you want to remember items you need to pick up at the store? Simply say them out loud to yourself. A series of studies (MacLeod, Gopie, Hourihan, Neary, & Ozubko, 2010) found that saying a word out loud improves your memory for the word because it increases the word’s distinctiveness. Feel silly, saying random grocery items aloud? This technique works equally well if you just mouth the words. Using these techniques increased participants’ memory for the words by more than 10%. These techniques can also be used to help you study.

How to Study Effectively

Based on the information presented in this chapter, here are some strategies and suggestions to help you hone your study techniques ( Figure 8.20 ). The key with any of these strategies is to figure out what works best for you.

students studying.

  • Use elaborative rehearsal : In a famous article, Craik and Lockhart (1972) discussed their belief that information we process more deeply goes into long-term memory. Their theory is called  levels of processing . If we want to remember a piece of information, we should think about it more deeply and link it to other information and memories to make it more meaningful. For example, if we are trying to remember that the hippocampus is involved with memory processing, we might envision a hippopotamus with excellent memory and then we could better remember the hippocampus.
  • Apply the self-reference effect : As you go through the process of elaborative rehearsal, it would be even more beneficial to make the material you are trying to memorize personally meaningful to you. In other words, make use of the self-reference effect. Write notes in your own words. Write definitions from the text, and then rewrite them in your own words. Relate the material to something you have already learned for another class, or think how you can apply the concepts to your own life. When you do this, you are building a web of retrieval cues that will help you access the material when you want to remember it.
  • Don’t forget the forgetting curve : As you know, the information you learn drops off rapidly with time. Even if you think you know the material, study it again right before test time to increase the likelihood the information will remain in your memory. Overlearning can help prevent storage decay.
  • Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse : Review the material over time, in spaced and organized study sessions. Organize and study your notes, and take practice quizzes/exams. Link the new information to other information you already know well.
  • Be aware of interference : To reduce the likelihood of interference, study during a quiet time without interruptions or distractions (like television or music).
  • Keep moving : Of course you already know that exercise is good for your body, but did you also know it’s also good for your mind? Research suggests that regular aerobic exercise (anything that gets your heart rate elevated) is beneficial for memory (van Praag, 2008). Aerobic exercise promotes neurogenesis: the growth of new brain cells in the hippocampus, an area of the brain known to play a role in memory and learning.
  • Get enough sleep : While you are sleeping, your brain is still at work. During sleep the brain organizes and consolidates information to be stored in long-term memory (Abel & Bäuml, 2013).
  • Make use of mnemonic devices : As you learned earlier in this chapter, mnemonic devices often help us to remember and recall information. There are different types of mnemonic devices, such as the acronym. An acronym is a word formed by the first letter of each of the words you want to remember. For example, even if you live near one, you might have difficulty recalling the names of all five Great Lakes. What if I told you to think of the word Homes? HOMES is an acronym that represents Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior: the five Great Lakes. Another type of mnemonic device is an acrostic: you make a phrase of all the first letters of the words. For example, if you are taking a math test and you are having difficulty remembering  the order of operations , recalling the following sentence will help you: “Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally,” because the order of mathematical operations is Parentheses, Exponents, Multiplication, Division, Addition, Subtraction. There also are jingles, which are rhyming tunes that contain key words related to the concept, such as  i before e, except after c .

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8.3 Problems with Memory

Learning objectives.

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Compare and contrast the two types of amnesia
  • Discuss the unreliability of eyewitness testimony
  • Discuss encoding failure
  • Discuss the various memory errors
  • Compare and contrast the two types of interference

You may pride yourself on your amazing ability to remember the birthdates and ages of all of your friends and family members, or you may be able to recall vivid details of your 5th birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese’s. However, all of us have at times felt frustrated, and even embarrassed, when our memories have failed us. There are several reasons why this happens.

Amnesia is the loss of long-term memory that occurs as the result of disease, physical trauma, or psychological trauma. Endel Tulving (2002) and his colleagues at the University of Toronto studied K. C. for years. K. C. suffered a traumatic head injury in a motorcycle accident and then had severe amnesia. Tulving writes,

the outstanding fact about K.C.'s mental make-up is his utter inability to remember any events, circumstances, or situations from his own life. His episodic amnesia covers his whole life, from birth to the present. The only exception is the experiences that, at any time, he has had in the last minute or two. (Tulving, 2002, p. 14)

Anterograde Amnesia

There are two common types of amnesia: anterograde amnesia and retrograde amnesia ( Figure 8.10 ). Anterograde amnesia is commonly caused by brain trauma, such as a blow to the head. With anterograde amnesia , you cannot remember new information, although you can remember information and events that happened prior to your injury. The hippocampus is usually affected (McLeod, 2011). This suggests that damage to the brain has resulted in the inability to transfer information from short-term to long-term memory; that is, the inability to consolidate memories.

Many people with this form of amnesia are unable to form new episodic or semantic memories, but are still able to form new procedural memories (Bayley & Squire, 2002). This was true of H. M., which was discussed earlier. The brain damage caused by his surgery resulted in anterograde amnesia. H. M. would read the same magazine over and over, having no memory of ever reading it—it was always new to him. He also could not remember people he had met after his surgery. If you were introduced to H. M. and then you left the room for a few minutes, he would not know you upon your return and would introduce himself to you again. However, when presented the same puzzle several days in a row, although he did not remember having seen the puzzle before, his speed at solving it became faster each day (because of relearning) (Corkin, 1965, 1968).

Retrograde Amnesia

Retrograde amnesia is loss of memory for events that occurred prior to the trauma. People with retrograde amnesia cannot remember some or even all of their past. They have difficulty remembering episodic memories. What if you woke up in the hospital one day and there were people surrounding your bed claiming to be your spouse, your children, and your parents? The trouble is you don’t recognize any of them. You were in a car accident, suffered a head injury, and now have retrograde amnesia. You don’t remember anything about your life prior to waking up in the hospital. This may sound like the stuff of Hollywood movies, and Hollywood has been fascinated with the amnesia plot for nearly a century, going all the way back to the film Garden of Lies from 1915 to more recent movies such as the Jason Bourne spy thrillers. However, for real-life sufferers of retrograde amnesia, like former NFL football player Scott Bolzan, the story is not a Hollywood movie. Bolzan fell, hit his head, and deleted 46 years of his life in an instant. He is now living with one of the most extreme cases of retrograde amnesia on record.

Link to Learning

View the video story about Scott Bolzan's amnesia and his attempts to get his life back to learn more.

Memory Construction and Reconstruction

The formulation of new memories is sometimes called construction , and the process of bringing up old memories is called reconstruction . Yet as we retrieve our memories, we also tend to alter and modify them. A memory pulled from long-term storage into short-term memory is flexible. New events can be added and we can change what we think we remember about past events, resulting in inaccuracies and distortions. People may not intend to distort facts, but it can happen in the process of retrieving old memories and combining them with new memories (Roediger & DeSoto, 2015).

Suggestibility

When someone witnesses a crime, that person’s memory of the details of the crime is very important in catching the suspect. Because memory is so fragile, witnesses can be easily (and often accidentally) misled due to the problem of suggestibility. Suggestibility describes the effects of misinformation from external sources that leads to the creation of false memories. In the fall of 2002, a sniper in the DC area shot people at a gas station, leaving Home Depot, and walking down the street. These attacks went on in a variety of places for over three weeks and resulted in the deaths of ten people. During this time, as you can imagine, people were terrified to leave their homes, go shopping, or even walk through their neighborhoods. Police officers and the FBI worked frantically to solve the crimes, and a tip hotline was set up. Law enforcement received over 140,000 tips, which resulted in approximately 35,000 possible suspects (Newseum, n.d.).

Most of the tips were dead ends, until a white van was spotted at the site of one of the shootings. The police chief went on national television with a picture of the white van. After the news conference, several other eyewitnesses called to say that they too had seen a white van fleeing from the scene of the shooting. At the time, there were more than 70,000 white vans in the area. Police officers, as well as the general public, focused almost exclusively on white vans because they believed the eyewitnesses. Other tips were ignored. When the suspects were finally caught, they were driving a blue sedan.

As illustrated by this example, we are vulnerable to the power of suggestion, simply based on something we see on the news. Or we can claim to remember something that in fact is only a suggestion someone made. It is the suggestion that is the cause of the false memory.

Eyewitness Misidentification

Even though memory and the process of reconstruction can be fragile, police officers, prosecutors, and the courts often rely on eyewitness identification and testimony in the prosecution of criminals. However, faulty eyewitness identification and testimony can lead to wrongful convictions ( Figure 8.11 ).

How does this happen? In 1984, Jennifer Thompson, then a 22-year-old college student in North Carolina, was brutally raped at knifepoint. As she was being raped, she tried to memorize every detail of her rapist’s face and physical characteristics, vowing that if she survived, she would help get him convicted. After the police were contacted, a composite sketch was made of the suspect, and Jennifer was shown six photos. She chose two, one of which was of Ronald Cotton. After looking at the photos for 4–5 minutes, she said, “Yeah. This is the one,” and then she added, “I think this is the guy.” When questioned about this by the detective who asked, “You’re sure? Positive?” She said that it was him. Then she asked the detective if she did OK, and he reinforced her choice by telling her she did great. These kinds of unintended cues and suggestions by police officers can lead witnesses to identify the wrong suspect. The district attorney was concerned about her lack of certainty the first time, so she viewed a lineup of seven men. She said she was trying to decide between numbers 4 and 5, finally deciding that Cotton, number 5, “Looks most like him.” He was 22 years old.

By the time the trial began, Jennifer Thompson had absolutely no doubt that she was raped by Ronald Cotton. She testified at the court hearing, and her testimony was compelling enough that it helped convict him. How did she go from, “I think it’s the guy” and it “Looks most like him,” to such certainty? Gary Wells and Deah Quinlivan (2009) assert it’s suggestive police identification procedures, such as stacking lineups to make the defendant stand out, telling the witness which person to identify, and confirming witnesses choices by telling them “Good choice,” or “You picked the guy.”

After Cotton was convicted of the rape, he was sent to prison for life plus 50 years. After 4 years in prison, he was able to get a new trial. Jennifer Thompson once again testified against him. This time Ronald Cotton was given two life sentences. After serving 11 years in prison, DNA evidence finally demonstrated that Ronald Cotton did not commit the rape, was innocent, and had served over a decade in prison for a crime he did not commit.

Watch this first video about Ronald Cotton who was falsely convicted and then watch this second video about the task of his accuser to learn more about the fallibility of memory.

Ronald Cotton’s story, unfortunately, is not unique. There are also people who were convicted and placed on death row, who were later exonerated. The Innocence Project is a non-profit group that works to exonerate falsely convicted people, including those convicted by eyewitness testimony. To learn more, you can visit http://www.innocenceproject.org.

Preserving Eyewitness Memory: The Elizabeth Smart Case

Contrast the Cotton case with what happened in the Elizabeth Smart case. When Elizabeth was 14 years old and fast asleep in her bed at home, she was abducted at knifepoint. Her nine-year-old sister, Mary Katherine, was sleeping in the same bed and watched, terrified, as her beloved older sister was abducted. Mary Katherine was the sole eyewitness to this crime and was very fearful. In the following weeks, the Salt Lake City police and the FBI proceeded with caution with Mary Katherine. They did not want to implant any false memories or mislead her in any way. They did not show her police line-ups or push her to do a composite sketch of the abductor. They knew if they corrupted her memory, Elizabeth might never be found. For several months, there was little or no progress on the case. Then, about 4 months after the kidnapping, Mary Katherine first recalled that she had heard the abductor’s voice prior to that night (he had worked exactly one day as a handyman at the family’s home) and then she was able to name the person whose voice it was. The family contacted the press and others recognized him—after a total of nine months, the suspect was caught and Elizabeth Smart was returned to her family.

The Misinformation Effect

Cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Loftus has conducted extensive research on memory. She has studied false memories as well as recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse. Loftus also developed the misinformation effect paradigm , which holds that after exposure to additional and possibly inaccurate information, a person may misremember the original event.

According to Loftus, an eyewitness’s memory of an event is very flexible due to the misinformation effect. To test this theory, Loftus and John Palmer (1974) asked 45 U.S. college students to estimate the speed of cars using different forms of questions ( Figure 8.12 ). The participants were shown films of car accidents and were asked to play the role of the eyewitness and describe what happened. They were asked, “About how fast were the cars going when they (smashed, collided, bumped, hit, contacted) each other?” The participants estimated the speed of the cars based on the verb used.

Participants who heard the word “smashed” estimated that the cars were traveling at a much higher speed than participants who heard the word “contacted.” The implied information about speed, based on the verb they heard, had an effect on the participants’ memory of the accident. In a follow-up one week later, participants were asked if they saw any broken glass (none was shown in the accident pictures). Participants who had been in the “smashed” group were more than twice as likely to indicate that they did remember seeing glass. Loftus and Palmer demonstrated that a leading question encouraged them to not only remember the cars were going faster, but to also falsely remember that they saw broken glass.

Controversies over Repressed and Recovered Memories

Other researchers have described how whole events, not just words, can be falsely recalled, even when they did not happen. The idea that memories of traumatic events could be repressed has been a theme in the field of psychology, beginning with Sigmund Freud, and the controversy surrounding the idea continues today.

Recall of false autobiographical memories is called false memory syndrome . This syndrome has received a lot of publicity, particularly as it relates to memories of events that do not have independent witnesses—often the only witnesses to the abuse are the perpetrator and the victim (e.g., sexual abuse).

On one side of the debate are those who have recovered memories of childhood abuse years after it occurred. These researchers argue that some children’s experiences have been so traumatizing and distressing that they must lock those memories away in order to lead some semblance of a normal life. They believe that repressed memories can be locked away for decades and later recalled intact through hypnosis and guided imagery techniques (Devilly, 2007).

Research suggests that having no memory of childhood sexual abuse is quite common in adults. For instance, one large-scale study conducted by John Briere and Jon Conte (1993) revealed that 59% of 450 men and women who were receiving treatment for sexual abuse that had occurred before age 18 had forgotten their experiences. Ross Cheit (2007) suggested that repressing these memories created psychological distress in adulthood. The Recovered Memory Project was created so that victims of childhood sexual abuse can recall these memories and allow the healing process to begin (Cheit, 2007; Devilly, 2007).

On the other side, Loftus has challenged the idea that individuals can repress memories of traumatic events from childhood, including sexual abuse, and then recover those memories years later through therapeutic techniques such as hypnosis, guided visualization, and age regression.

Loftus is not saying that childhood sexual abuse doesn’t happen, but she does question whether or not those memories are accurate, and she is skeptical of the questioning process used to access these memories, given that even the slightest suggestion from the therapist can lead to misinformation effects. For example, researchers Stephen Ceci and Maggie Brucks (1993, 1995) asked three-year-old children to use an anatomically correct doll to show where their pediatricians had touched them during an exam. Fifty-five percent of the children pointed to the genital/anal area on the dolls, even when they had not received any form of genital exam.

Ever since Loftus published her first studies on the suggestibility of eyewitness testimony in the 1970s, social scientists, police officers, therapists, and legal practitioners have been aware of the flaws in interview practices. Consequently, steps have been taken to decrease suggestibility of witnesses. One way is to modify how witnesses are questioned. When interviewers use neutral and less leading language, children more accurately recall what happened and who was involved (Goodman, 2006; Pipe, 1996; Pipe, Lamb, Orbach, & Esplin, 2004). Another change is in how police lineups are conducted. It’s recommended that a blind photo lineup be used. This way the person administering the lineup doesn’t know which photo belongs to the suspect, minimizing the possibility of giving leading cues. Additionally, judges in some states now inform jurors about the possibility of misidentification. Judges can also suppress eyewitness testimony if they deem it unreliable.

“I’ve a grand memory for forgetting,” quipped Robert Louis Stevenson. Forgetting refers to loss of information from long-term memory. We all forget things, like a loved one’s birthday, someone’s name, or where we put our car keys. As you’ve come to see, memory is fragile, and forgetting can be frustrating and even embarrassing. But why do we forget? To answer this question, we will look at several perspectives on forgetting.

Encoding Failure

Sometimes memory loss happens before the actual memory process begins, which is encoding failure. We can’t remember something if we never stored it in our memory in the first place. This would be like trying to find a book on your e-reader that you never actually purchased and downloaded. Often, in order to remember something, we must pay attention to the details and actively work to process the information (effortful encoding). Lots of times we don’t do this. For instance, think of how many times in your life you’ve seen a penny. Can you accurately recall what the front of a U.S. penny looks like? When researchers Raymond Nickerson and Marilyn Adams (1979) asked this question, they found that most Americans don’t know which one it is. The reason is most likely encoding failure. Most of us never encode the details of the penny. We only encode enough information to be able to distinguish it from other coins. If we don’t encode the information, then it’s not in our long-term memory, so we will not be able to remember it.

Memory Errors

Psychologist Daniel Schacter (2001), a well-known memory researcher, offers seven ways our memories fail us. He calls them the seven sins of memory and categorizes them into three groups: forgetting, distortion, and intrusion ( Table 8.1 ).

Sin Type Description Example
Transience Forgetting Accessibility of memory decreases over time Forget events that occurred long ago
absentmindedness Forgetting Forgetting caused by lapses in attention Forget where your phone is
Blocking Forgetting Accessibility of information is temporarily blocked Tip of the tongue
Misattribution Distortion Source of memory is confused Recalling a dream memory as a waking memory
Suggestibility Distortion False memories Result from leading questions
Bias Distortion Memories distorted by current belief system Align memories to current beliefs
Persistence Intrusion Inability to forget undesirable memories Traumatic events

Let’s look at the first sin of the forgetting errors: transience , which means that memories can fade over time. Here’s an example of how this happens. Nathan’s English teacher has assigned his students to read the novel To Kill a Mockingbird . Nathan comes home from school and tells his mom he has to read this book for class. “Oh, I loved that book!” she says. Nathan asks her what the book is about, and after some hesitation she says, “Well . . . I know I read the book in high school, and I remember that one of the main characters is named Scout, and her father is an attorney, but I honestly don’t remember anything else.” Nathan wonders if his mother actually read the book, and his mother is surprised she can’t recall the plot. What is going on here is storage decay: unused information tends to fade with the passage of time.

In 1885, German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus analyzed the process of memorization. First, he memorized lists of nonsense syllables. Then he measured how much he learned (retained) when he attempted to relearn each list. He tested himself over different periods of time from 20 minutes later to 30 days later. The result is his famous forgetting curve ( Figure 8.14 ). Due to storage decay, an average person will lose 50% of the memorized information after 20 minutes and 70% of the information after 24 hours (Ebbinghaus, 1885/1964). Your memory for new information decays quickly and then eventually levels out.

Are you constantly losing your cell phone? Have you ever driven back home to make sure you turned off the stove? Have you ever walked into a room for something, but forgotten what it was? You probably answered yes to at least one, if not all, of these examples—but don’t worry, you are not alone. We are all prone to committing the memory error known as absentmindedness , which describes lapses in memory caused by breaks in attention or our focus being somewhere else.

Cynthia, a psychologist, recalls a time when she recently committed the memory error of absentmindedness.

When I was completing court-ordered psychological evaluations, each time I went to the court, I was issued a temporary identification card with a magnetic strip which would open otherwise locked doors. As you can imagine, in a courtroom, this identification is valuable and important and no one wanted it to be lost or be picked up by a criminal. At the end of the day, I would hand in my temporary identification. One day, when I was almost done with an evaluation, my daughter’s day care called and said she was sick and needed to be picked up. It was flu season, I didn’t know how sick she was, and I was concerned. I finished up the evaluation in the next ten minutes, packed up my briefcase, and rushed to drive to my daughter’s day care. After I picked up my daughter, I could not remember if I had handed back my identification or if I had left it sitting out on a table. I immediately called the court to check. It turned out that I had handed back my identification. Why could I not remember that? (personal communication, September 5, 2013)

When have you experienced absentmindedness?

“I just streamed this movie called Oblivion , and it had that famous actor in it. Oh, what’s his name? He’s been in all of those movies, like The Shawshank Redemption and The Dark Knight trilogy. I think he’s even won an Oscar. Oh gosh, I can picture his face in my mind, and hear his distinctive voice, but I just can’t think of his name! This is going to bug me until I can remember it!” This particular error can be so frustrating because you have the information right on the tip of your tongue. Have you ever experienced this? If so, you’ve committed the error known as blocking : you can’t access stored information ( Figure 8.15 ).

Now let’s take a look at the three errors of distortion: misattribution, suggestibility, and bias. Misattribution happens when you confuse the source of your information. Let’s say Alejandra was dating Lucia and they saw the first Hobbit movie together. Then they broke up and Alejandra saw the second Hobbit movie with someone else. Later that year, Alejandra and Lucia get back together. One day, they are discussing how the Hobbit books and movies are different and Alejandra says to Lucia, “I loved watching the second movie with you and seeing you jump out of your seat during that super scary part.” When Lucia responded with a puzzled and then angry look, Alejandra realized she’d committed the error of misattribution.

What if someone is a victim of rape shortly after watching a television program? Is it possible that the victim could actually blame the rape on the person she saw on television because of misattribution? This is exactly what happened to Donald Thomson.

Australian eyewitness expert Donald Thomson appeared on a live TV discussion about the unreliability of eyewitness memory. He was later arrested, placed in a lineup and identified by a victim as the man who had raped her. The police charged Thomson although the rape had occurred at the time he was on TV. They dismissed his alibi that he was in plain view of a TV audience and in the company of the other discussants, including an assistant commissioner of police. . . . Eventually, the investigators discovered that the rapist had attacked the woman as she was watching TV—the very program on which Thomson had appeared. Authorities eventually cleared Thomson. The woman had confused the rapist's face with the face that she had seen on TV. (Baddeley, 2004, p. 133)

The second distortion error is suggestibility. Suggestibility is similar to misattribution, since it also involves false memories, but it’s different. With misattribution you create the false memory entirely on your own, which is what the victim did in the Donald Thomson case above. With suggestibility, it comes from someone else, such as a therapist or police interviewer asking leading questions of a witness during an interview.

Memories can also be affected by bias , which is the final distortion error. Schacter (2001) says that your feelings and view of the world can actually distort your memory of past events. There are several types of bias:

  • Stereotypical bias involves racial and gender biases. For example, when Asian American and European American research participants were presented with a list of names, they more frequently incorrectly remembered typical African American names such as Jamal and Tyrone to be associated with the occupation basketball player, and they more frequently incorrectly remembered typical White names such as Greg and Howard to be associated with the occupation of politician (Payne, Jacoby, & Lambert, 2004).
  • Egocentric bias involves enhancing our memories of the past (Payne et al., 2004). Did you really score the winning goal in that big soccer match, or did you just assist?
  • Hindsight bias happens when we think an outcome was inevitable after the fact. This is the “I knew it all along” phenomenon. The reconstructive nature of memory contributes to hindsight bias (Carli, 1999). We remember untrue events that seem to confirm that we knew the outcome all along.

Have you ever had a song play over and over in your head? How about a memory of a traumatic event, something you really do not want to think about? When you keep remembering something, to the point where you can’t “get it out of your head” and it interferes with your ability to concentrate on other things, it is called persistence . It’s Schacter’s seventh and last memory error. It’s actually a failure of our memory system because we involuntarily recall unwanted memories, particularly unpleasant ones ( Figure 8.16 ). For instance, you witness a horrific car accident on the way to work one morning, and you can’t concentrate on work because you keep remembering the scene.

Interference

Sometimes information is stored in our memory, but for some reason it is inaccessible. This is known as interference, and there are two types: proactive interference and retroactive interference ( Figure 8.17 ). Have you ever gotten a new phone number or moved to a new address, but right after you tell people the old (and wrong) phone number or address? When the new year starts, do you find you accidentally write the previous year? These are examples of proactive interference : when old information hinders the recall of newly learned information. Retroactive interference happens when information learned more recently hinders the recall of older information. For example, this week you are studying about memory and learn about the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve. Next week you study lifespan development and learn about Erikson's theory of psychosocial development, but thereafter have trouble remembering Ebbinghaus's work because you can only remember Erickson's theory.

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chapter8 psych

Chapter 8 psych.

QuestionAnswer
Lashley, with his interest in the role of the brain on memory, was a Monist.
Encoding & storage are separate processes.
why do i think retention is an active process because of the effects of decay.
sensory memory can retain an unlimited amount of information for a very short time.
What will tend to increase the amount of information that can be retained in short-term memory? chunking.
people tend to remember words that appear in the beginning and at the end of a list.
Out of the following what is true: the more time you spend studying the more you will remember, the less time you spend studying the more you will remember, the more different ways you think about something the more you are likely to remember it. the more ways you think about something, the more likely you are to remember it.
What is the best way to determine what a student knows? An essay test.
When children are interviewed about their recollections of possible sexual abuse, their reports are especially credible if involved adults have not discussed the issue with them prior to the interview.
The psychologist Jean Piaget constructed a vivid, detailed memory of a nursemaid's thwarting his kidnapping after hearing false reports of such an event. His experience best illustrates source amnesia.
Research on memory construction indicates that memories of past experiences are likely to be distorted by our current assumptions.
Sabrina went to the store. She remembered to buy all items by reminding herself that she needed food products and that she needed nonfood products that included school supplies and cleaning aids. Sabrina made effective use of hierarchical organization.
Although Arturo has looked at his watch thousands of times, he is unable to recall whether the watch features Arabic or Roman numerals. This is most likely due to a failure in encoding.
Semantic encoding is to visual encoding as ________ is to ________. meaning; imagery.
Arnold so easily remembers his old girlfriend's telephone number that he finds it difficult to recall his new girlfriend's number. Arnold's difficulty best illustrates proactive interference.
Using the mnemonic ROY G. BIV to remember the colors of the rainbow in the order of wavelength (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet) illustrates the use of an acronym.
Elaine's memory of her Paris vacation is more positive today than it was last year just after she went. This best illustrates rosy retrospection
The self-reference effect best illustrates the value of semantic encoding.
Reading a romantic novel caused Consuela to recall some old experiences with a high school boyfriend. The effect of the novel on Consuela's memory retrieval is an illustration of priming.
An experiment demonstrated that people who were better at forgetting irrelevant word pairs were good at remembering relevant word pairs. Their forgetting was adaptive because it reduced interference
Which test of memory typically provides the fewest retrieval cues? recall.
Peterson and Peterson demonstrated that unrehearsed short-term memories for three consonants almost completely decay in as short a time as 12 seconds.
The importance of effortful processing for long-term retention is best illustrated by the testing effect.
The effortful processing of information can become automatic through practice.
Judy is embarrassed because she momentarily fails to remember a good friend's name. Judy's poor memory most likely results from a failure in retrieval.
In an experiment, students are asked to learn a large number of nonsense words. One group is given time to chunk the words, the other group is not. Those given time to chunk the words are in the _____. experimental.
In an experiment, students are asked to learn a large number of nonsense words. One group is given time to chunk the words, the other group is not. In this study, the independent variable is _____. If the students had time to chunk or not.
The _____ has a role in pairing the conditioned stimulus with the conditioned response. cerebellum.
Spontaneous recovery of classical conditioning indicates that the individual stored information about the relationship between two events, and their later lack of a relationship, in: long-term memory
Memory is not directly observable. Therefore it would be least interesting to: behaviorists.
The role of the hippocampus in memory would be most interesting to a: neuroscientist.
In the video, 'Living without Memory', brain scans indicate that Clive Wearing suffered the greatest loss of brain tissue in his ________ lobe. left temporal.
The ________ is responsible for implicit memory. cerebellum.
In the PsychSim 'Iconic Memory' activity, you were asked to observe a random group of nine letters flashed briefly on the screen. On this free recall memory task, an average college student is most likely to recall _______ of the letters. four.
Memory of your familiar old e-mail password may block the recall of your new password. This illustrates proactive interference.
When Tony is in a bad mood, he interprets his parents' comments as criticisms. When he's in a good mood, he interprets the same types of parental comments as helpful suggestions. This best illustrates that our emotional states influence the process of encoding.
Police interrogators have been trained to ask less suggestive and more effective questions to avoid the misinformation effect.
Kelsey could not remember the meaning of the term proactive interference. she remembered that the term appeared on the fourth line of a left-hand page in her textbook. Her memory of this incidental information is best explained in terms of automatic processing.
Some of the information in our ________ memory is encoded into ________ memory. iconic; short term.
An understanding of the distinction between implicit and explicit memories is most helpful for explaining infantile amnesia.
Karl and Dee had a joyful wedding ceremony. After their painful divorce, however, they began to remember the wedding as a somewhat hectic and unpleasant event. Their recollections best illustrate the nature of memory construction.
Explicit memory is to ________ as implicit memory is to ________. hippocampus; cerebellum.
Ebbinghaus discovered that the rate at which we forget newly learned information is initially rapid and subsequently slows down.
Our assumptions about the past often influence the form in which information is retrieved from long-term memory. This fact is most relevant to appreciating the importance of automatic processing.
We are more likely to remember the words “typewriter, cigarette, and fire” than the words “void, process, and inherent.” This best illustrates the value of imagery.
The integration of new incoming information with knowledge retrieved from long-term memory involves the activity of working memory.
Associative learning and long-term memory are facilitated by: repetition.
Because he can see the effects, a behaviorist would be interested in the effects of rehearsal on: hippocampus.
Forgetting that a false memory of a childhood hand injury originated from an act of imagination best illustrates source amnesia.
When a particular pattern of neural activation is repeated enough times in short-term memory, it produces a change in the synaptic structure of the participating neurons. This is called consolidation.
The process of interference can lead to a failure in storing, encoding, or retrieval? any of the above.
The importance of effortful processing for long-term retention is best illustrated by the testing effect.
_____ is one way to increase the odds of developing an operant response and the odds that something will be stored in memory. repetition.
Research reports of repression and recovered memories indicate that extremely stressful life experiences are especially likely to be well-remembered.
The ability to learn something without any conscious memory of having learned it suggests the need to distinguish between implicit memory and explicit memory.
After learning the combination for his new locker at school, Milton is unable to remember the combination for his year-old bicycle lock. Milton is experiencing the effects of retroactive interference.
By incorporating errors originating from a hypnotist's leading questions, “hypnotically refreshed” memories often illustrate the misinformation effect.
Mood-congruent memory refers to the effect of emotional states on the process of retrieval.
A person who has trouble forgetting information, such as the Russian memory whiz S, often seems to have a limited capacity for abstract thinking.
Wei Dong was asked to memorize a long list of words that included “ship, effort, professor, and inquire.” He later recalled these words as “boat, work, teacher, and question.” This suggests that the four original words had been encoded semantically.
When memory researcher Elizabeth Loftus was an adolescent, her uncle incorrectly insisted that as a child she had found her own mother's drowned body. Loftus herself later falsely recollected finding the body. This best illustrates the misinformation effect.
Priming is to retrieval as ________ is to encoding. rehearsal.
Memory acquisition is to memory retention as ________ is to ________. encoding; storage.
After being asked to remember three consonants, participants in a study by Peterson and Peterson counted aloud backward by threes to prevent rehearsal.
Chess masters can recall the exact positions of most pieces after a brief glance at the game board. This ability is best explained in terms of chunking.
Our inability to remember information presented in the seconds just before we fall asleep is most likely due to encoding failure.
Rabbits fail to learn a conditioned eye-blink response when the ______ is temporarily deactivated during the process of training. cerebellum.
When an eyewitness to an auto accident is asked to describe what happened, which test of memory is being used? recall.
Proactive and retroactive interference would be expected to ____ of words remembered in a list. reduce the modal number.
The effect of long-term potentiation on memory would be most interesting to a: neuroscientist.
The technique used by the PsychSim 'Iconic Memory' activity to demonstrate the full extent of your iconic memory (sensory visual memory) is called partial report.
Cerebellum is to ________ memory as hippocampus is to ________ memory. implicit; explicit.
After attending group therapy sessions for adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse, Karen mistakenly remembered details from others' traumatic life stories as part of her own life history. This best illustrates the dangers of source amnesia.
The title of a song is on the tip of Gerard's tongue, but he cannot recall it until someone mentions the songwriter's name. Gerard's initial inability to recall the title was most likely caused by retrieval failure.
The fact that our preconceived ideas contribute to our ability to process new information best illustrates the importance of semantic encoding.
Proactive and retroactive interference contribute most strongly to the serial position effect.
A flashbulb memory would typically be stored in ________ memory. long-term.
Short-term memory is slightly better for auditory information than for visual information.
The occasional memory failures of older adults to recall recently learned information can be best explained in terms of the greater difficulty older people have with retrieval
Incest survivors who lack conscious memories of their sexual abuse may sometimes be told that they are simply in a stage of “denial” and “repression.” This explanation for their lack of abuse memories emphasizes retrieval failure.
Retroactive interference involves the disruption of memory retrieval.
Conditioning (both classical and operant) and memory: Do not require awareness.
The most widely accepted model of how memory works was proposed by Richard Atkinson and Richard Shiffrin and is called the _______ model of memory. three-stage
Which of the following is the most accurate description of our memories? They are reconstructed from fragments of information collected at the time of encoding.
Research on memory construction indicates that false memories often feel as real as true memories.
Remembering how to solve a jigsaw puzzle without any conscious recollection that you can do so best illustrates ________ memory. implicit
An address for obtaining tickets flashes, &the image disappears before Sergei has a chance to write it. To his surprise, however, he has retained a momentary mental image of the five-digit zip code. His experience best illustrates ________ memory. iconic
Compulsive gamblers frequently recall losing less money than is actually the case. Their memory failure best illustrates motivated forgetting.
In considering the seven sins of memory, misattribution is to the sin of ________ as blocking is to the sin of ________. distortion; forgetting
Children can better remember an ancient Latin verse if the definition of each unfamiliar Latin word is carefully explained to them. This best illustrates the value of semantic encoding.
The day after Kirsten was introduced to 13 people at a business luncheon, she could recall the names of only the first 4 people to whom she had been introduced. Her effective recall of these particular names best illustrates the benefits of rehearsal
When asked how they felt 10 years ago regarding marijuana issues, people recalled attitudes closer to their current views than to those they actually reported a decade earlier. This best illustrates memory construction.
The famous Ebbinghaus forgetting curve indicates that how well we remember information depends on how long ago we learned that information.
Negative recall primed by distressing emotions most clearly illustrates mood-congruent memory.
It's evening and we're mentally replaying the day's events. We picture our facial expressions as we listened to a friend's tale of woe. Because we were unable to see these expressions at the time, our recall illustrates memory construction.
In an experiment, students are asked to learn a large number of nonsense words. One group is given time to chunk the words, the other group is not. The ______ being tested is that chunking will increase the ____ of remembered words. Hypothesis, median number
Studies designed to find ways to improve semantic coding as a way to increase memory for events would probably be considered: Applied research
Iconic memory (sensory visual memory) partially recreates an experiment conducted by George Sperling.
The quest for a physical basis of memory involves a search for a memory trace.
Memory of facts is to ________ as memory of skills is to ________. explicit memory; implicit memory.
When people are asked to recall a list of words they had earlier memorized, they often substitute synonyms for some of the words on the original list. This best illustrates the effects of semantic encoding.
Your relative success in recalling various items one day after you first heard them listed in order is likely to illustrate a primacy effect.
You ask the men and women taking introductory psychology to recall what they were wearing the first time they went out with someone special to them now. Not surprisingly, the results of this _____ indicate that there is a sex difference in _____ memory. Experiment, implicit.
According to the Roediger and McDermott study in 'Trusting Your Memory', most people perform better on ________ tasks than on ________ tasks. recognition; recall
One way to increase the amount of information stored in short-term memory is to use the technique of chunking.
The paired associates task included in this PsychSim 'Forgetting' activity demonstrates proactive interference.
In considering the seven sins of memory, transience is to the sin of ________ as suggestibility is to the sin of ________. forgetting; distortion
Long-term potentiation a neural basis for learning and memory.
Shortly after hearing a list of items, people tend to recall the last items in the list especially quickly and accurately. This best illustrates a recency effect.
Superior memory for rap lyrics that include the most rhymes best illustrates the value of acoustic encoding.
The 'Living without Memory' video highlights the tragic experience of a renowned musician, Clive Wearing. The destruction of Clive's ________ is primarily responsible for his severe memory impairment. hippocampus
_______ memory is affected when a person's hippocampus alone is damaged. Explicit
You ask the men and women to recall what they were wearing the first time they went out with someone special to them now. Not surprisingly, the results of this _____ indicate that there is a sex difference in _____ processing. experiment, automatic.
The greatest interference occurs when old and new material are similar to each other.
Compared false memories, true memories are more likely to contain detailed information.
Craik and Tulving experimentally demonstrated that people effectively remember seeing a specific word after they decide whether that word fits into an incomplete sentence. This research highlighted the effectiveness of semantic encoding.
Some information in our fleeting ________ is encoded into short-term memory. sensory memory.
Working memory can hold information for up to 30 seconds.
Explicit memory is to long-term memory as iconic memory is to ________ memory. sensory.
Stress hormones promote stronger memories by increasing the amount of glucose.
Frequent pairings of an unconditioned stimulus with a ______ produce learning. Frequent pairings between _____ and objects facilitates the recall of those objects. Conditioned stimulus, peg words or other images.

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New study reveals how brain waves control working memory

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MIT neuroscientists have found evidence that the brain’s ability to control what it’s thinking about relies on low-frequency brain waves known as beta rhythms.

In a memory task requiring information to be held in working memory for short periods of time, the MIT team found that the brain uses beta waves to consciously switch between different pieces of information. The findings support the researchers’ hypothesis that beta rhythms act as a gate that determines when information held in working memory is either read out or cleared out so we can think about something else.  

“The beta rhythm acts like a brake, controlling when to express information held in working memory and allow it to influence behavior,” says Mikael Lundqvist, a postdoc at MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory and the lead author of the study.

Earl Miller, the Picower Professor of Neuroscience at the Picower Institute and in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, is the senior author of the study, which appears in the Jan. 26 issue of Nature Communications .

Working in rhythm

There are millions of neurons in the brain, and each neuron produces its own electrical signals. These combined signals generate oscillations known as brain waves, which vary in frequency. In a 2016 study , Miller and Lundqvist found that gamma rhythms are associated with encoding and retrieving sensory information.

They also found that when gamma rhythms went up, beta rhythms went down, and vice versa. Previous work in their lab had shown that beta rhythms are associated with “top-down” information such as what the current goal is, how to achieve it, and what the rules of the task are.

All of this evidence led them to theorize that beta rhythms act as a control mechanism that determines what pieces of information are allowed to be read out from working memory — the brain function that allows control over conscious thought, Miller says.

“Working memory is the sketchpad of consciousness, and it is under our control. We choose what to think about,” he says. “You choose when to clear out working memory and choose when to forget about things. You can hold things in mind and wait to make a decision until you have more information.”

To test this hypothesis, the researchers recorded brain activity from the prefrontal cortex, which is the seat of working memory, in animals trained to perform a working memory task. The animals first saw one pair of objects, for example, A followed by B. Then they were shown a different pair and had to determine if it matched the first pair. A followed by B would be a match, but not B followed by A, or A followed by C. After this entire sequence, the animals released a bar if they determined that the two sequences matched.

The researchers found that brain activity varied depending on whether the two pairs matched or not. As an animal anticipated the beginning of the second sequence, it held the memory of object A, represented by gamma waves. If the next object seen was indeed A, beta waves then went up, which the researchers believe clears object A from working memory. Gamma waves then went up again, but this time the brain switched to holding information about object B, as this was now the relevant information to determine if the sequence matched.

However, if the first object shown was not a match for A, beta waves went way up, completely clearing out working memory, because the animal already knew that the sequence as a whole could not be a match.

“The interplay between beta and gamma acts exactly as you would expect a volitional control mechanism to act,” Miller says. “Beta is acting like a signal that gates access to working memory. It clears out working memory, and can act as a switch from one thought or item to another.”

A new model

Previous models of working memory proposed that information is held in mind by steady neuronal firing. The new study, in combination with their earlier work, supports the researchers’ new hypothesis that working memory is supported by brief episodes of spiking, which are controlled by beta rhythms.

“When we hold things in working memory (i.e. hold something ‘in mind’), we have the feeling that they are stable, like a light bulb that we’ve turned on to represent some thought. For a long time, neuroscientists have thought that this must mean that the way the brain represents these thoughts is through constant activity. This study shows that this isn’t the case — rather, our memories are blinking in and out of existence. Furthermore, each time a memory blinks on, it is riding on top of a wave of activity in the brain,” says Tim Buschman, an assistant professor of psychology at Princeton University who was not involved in the study.

Two other recent papers from Miller’s lab offer additional evidence for beta as a cognitive control mechanism.

In a study that recently appeared in the journal Neuron , they found similar patterns of interaction between beta and gamma rhythms in a different task involving assigning patterns of dots into categories. In cases where two patterns were easy to distinguish, gamma rhythms, carrying visual information, predominated during the identification. If the distinction task was more difficult, beta rhythms, carrying information about past experience with the categories, predominated.

In a recent paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences , Miller’s lab found that beta waves are produced by deep layers of the prefrontal cortex, and gamma rhythms are produced by superficial layers, which process sensory information. They also found that the beta waves were controlling the interaction of the two types of rhythms.

“When you find that kind of anatomical segregation and it’s in the infrastructure where you expect it to be, that adds a lot of weight to our hypothesis,” Miller says.

The researchers are now studying whether these types of rhythms control other brain functions such as attention. They also hope to study whether the interaction of beta and gamma rhythms explains why it is so difficult to hold more than a few pieces of information in mind at once.

“Eventually we’d like to see how these rhythms explain the limited capacity of working memory, why we can only hold a few thoughts in mind simultaneously, and what happens when you exceed capacity,” Miller says. “You have to have a mechanism that compensates for the fact that you overload your working memory and make decisions on which things are more important than others.”

The research was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, the Office of Naval Research, and the Picower JFDP Fellowship.

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Monday, June 29, 2020

NIH study finds out why some words may be more memorable than others

Illustration of brain network

Thousands of words, big and small, are crammed inside our memory banks just waiting to be swiftly withdrawn and strung into sentences. In a recent study of epilepsy patients and healthy volunteers, National Institutes of Health researchers found that our brains may withdraw some common words, like “pig,” “tank,” and “door,” much more often than others, including “cat,” “street,” and “stair.” By combining memory tests, brain wave recordings, and surveys of billions of words published in books, news articles and internet encyclopedia pages, the researchers not only showed how our brains may recall words but also memories of our past experiences.

“We found that some words are much more memorable than others. Our results support the idea that our memories are wired into neural networks and that our brains search for these memories, just the way search engines track down information on the internet,” said Weizhen (Zane) Xie, Ph.D., a cognitive psychologist and post-doctoral fellow at the NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) , who led the study published in Nature Human Behaviour. “We hope that these results can be used as a roadmap to evaluate the health of a person’s memory and brain.”

Dr. Xie and his colleagues first spotted these words when they re-analyzed the results of memory tests taken by 30 epilepsy patients who were part of a clinical trial led by Kareem Zaghloul, M.D., Ph.D., a neurosurgeon and senior investigator at NINDS . Dr. Zaghloul’s team tries to help patients whose seizures cannot be controlled by drugs, otherwise known as intractable epilepsy. During the observation period, patients spend several days at the NIH’s Clinical Center with surgically implanted electrodes designed to detect changes in brain activity.

“Our goal is to find and eliminate the source of these harmful and debilitating seizures,” said Dr. Zaghloul. “The monitoring period also provides a rare opportunity to record the neural activity that controls other parts of our lives. With the help of these patient volunteers we have been able to uncover some of the blueprints behind our memories.”

The memory tests were originally designed to assess episodic memories, or the associations – the who, what, where and how details - we make with our past experiences. Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia often destroys the brain’s capacity to make these memories.

Patients were shown pairs of words, such as “hand” and “apple,” from a list of 300 common nouns. A few seconds later they were shown one of the words, for instance “hand,” and asked to remember its pair, “apple.” Dr. Zaghloul’s team had used these tests to study how neural circuits in the brain store and replay memories .

When Dr. Xie and his colleagues re-examined the test results, they found that patients successfully recalled some words more often than others, regardless of the way the words were paired. In fact, of the 300 words used, the top five were on average about seven times more likely to be successfully recalled than the bottom five.

At first, Dr. Zaghloul and the team were surprised by the results and even a bit skeptical. For many years scientists have thought that successful recall of a paired word meant that a person’s brain made a strong connection between the two words during learning and that a similar process may explain why some experiences are more memorable than others. Also, it was hard to explain why words like “tank,” “doll,” and “pond” were remembered more often than frequently used words like “street,” “couch,” and “cloud.”

But any doubts were quickly diminished when the team saw very similar results after 2,623 healthy volunteers took an online version of the word pair test that the team posted on the crowdsourcing website Amazon Mechanical Turk .

“We saw that some things – in this case, words – may be inherently easier for our brains to recall than others,” said Dr. Zaghloul. “These results also provide the strongest evidence to date that what we discovered about how the brain controls memory in this set of patients may also be true for people outside of the study.”

Dr. Xie got the idea for the study at a Christmas party which he attended shortly after his arrival at NIH about two years ago. After spending many years studying how our mental states – our moods, our sleeping habits, and our familiarity with something – can change our memories, Dr. Xie joined Dr. Zaghloul’s team to learn more about the inner-workings of the brain.

“Our memories play a fundamental role in who we are and how our brains work. However, one of the biggest challenges of studying memory is that people often remember the same things in different ways, making it difficult for researchers to compare people’s performances on memory tests,” said Dr. Xie. “For over a century, researchers have called for a unified accounting of this variability . If we can predict what people should remember in advance and understand how our brains do this, then we might be able to develop better ways to evaluate someone’s overall brain health.”

At the party, he met Wilma Bainbridge, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the department of psychology at the University of Chicago, who, at the time was working as a post-doctoral fellow at the NIH’s National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) . She was trying to tackle this same issue by studying whether some things we see are more memorable than others.

For example, in one set of studies of more than 1000 healthy volunteers, Dr. Bainbridge and her colleagues found that some faces are more memorable than others . In these experiments, each volunteer was shown a steady stream of faces and asked to indicate when they recognized one from earlier in the stream.

“Our exciting finding is that there are some images of people or places that are inherently memorable for all people, even though we have each seen different things in our lives,” said Dr. Bainbridge. “And if image memorability is so powerful, this means we can know in advance what people are likely to remember or forget.”

Nevertheless, these results were limited to understanding how our brains work when we recognize something we see. At the party, Drs. Xie and Bainbridge wondered whether this idea could be applied to the recall of memories that Dr. Zaghloul’s team had been studying and if so, what would that tell us about how the brain remembers our past experiences?

In this paper, Dr. Xie proposed that the principles from an established theory, known as the Search for Associative Memory (SAM) model , may help explain their initial findings with the epilepsy patients and the healthy controls.

“We thought one way to understand the results of the word pair tests was to apply network theories for how the brain remembers past experiences. In this case, memories of the words we used look like internet or airport terminal maps, with the more memorable words appearing as big, highly trafficked spots connected to smaller spots representing the less memorable words,” said Dr. Xie. “The key to fully understanding this was to figure out what connects the words.”

To address this, the researchers wrote a novel computer modeling program that tested whether certain rules for defining how words are connected can predict the memorability results they saw in the study. The rules were based on language studies which had scanned thousands of sentences from books, news articles, and Wikipedia pages.

Initially, they found that seemingly straightforward ideas for connecting words could not explain their results. For instance, the more memorable words did not simply appear more often in sentences than the less memorable ones. Similarly, they could not find a link between the relative “concreteness” of a word’s definition and its memorability. A word like “moth” was no more memorable than a word that has more abstract meanings, like “chief.”

Instead, their results suggested that the more memorable words were more semantically similar, or more often linked to the meanings of other words used in the English language. This meant, that when the researchers plugged semantic similarity data into the computer model it correctly guessed which words that were memorable from patients and healthy volunteer test. In contrast, this did not happen when they used data on word frequency or concreteness.

Further results supported the idea that the more memorable words represented high trafficked hubs in the brain’s memory networks. The epilepsy patients correctly recalled the memorable words faster than others. Meanwhile, electrical recordings of the patients’ anterior temporal lobe, a language center, showed that their brains replayed the neural signatures behind those words earlier than the less memorable ones. The researchers saw this trend when they looked at both averages of all results and individual trials, which strongly suggested that the more memorable words are easier for the brain to find.

Moreover, both the patients and the healthy volunteers mistakenly called out the more memorable words more frequently than any other words. Overall, these results supported previous studies which suggested that the brain may visit or pass through these highly connected memories, like the way animals forage for food or a computer searches the internet .

“You know when you type words into a search engine, and it shows you a list of highly relevant guesses? It feels like the search engine is reading your mind. Well, our results suggest that the brains of the subjects in this study did something similar when they tried to recall a paired word, and we think that this may happen when we remember many of our past experiences,” said Dr. Xie. “Our results also suggest that the structure of the English language is stored in everyone’s brains and we hope that, one day, it is used to overcome the variability doctors face when trying to evaluate the health of a person’s memory and brain.”

The team is currently exploring ways to incorporate their results and computer model into the development of memory tests for Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.

This study was supported by NIH Intramural Research Programs at the NINDS (NS003144) and NIMH (MH002909).

NINDS is the nation’s leading funder of research on the brain and nervous system. The mission of NINDS is to seek fundamental knowledge about the brain and nervous system and to use that knowledge to reduce the burden of neurological disease.

About the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH): The mission of the NIMH is to transform the understanding and treatment of mental illnesses through basic and clinical research, paving the way for prevention, recovery and cure. For more information, visit the NIMH website .

About the National Institutes of Health (NIH): NIH, the nation's medical research agency, includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIH is the primary federal agency conducting and supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical research, and is investigating the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit www.nih.gov .

NIH…Turning Discovery Into Health ®

Xie et al., Memorability of Words in Arbitrary Verbal Associations Modulates Memory Retrieval in the Anterior Temporal Lobe. Nature Human Behaviour, June 29, 2020 DOI: 10.1038/s41562-020-0901-2

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Researchers investigate memory recall in healthy, older adults

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Even among healthy people, a faltering memory is often an expected part of aging - but it's not inevitable.

Some individuals exhibit remarkable maintenance of memory function throughout late adulthood, whereas others experience significant memory decline. Studying these differences across individuals is critical for understanding the complexities of brain aging, including how to promote resilience and longevity." Alexandra Trelle, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Stanford University

Building on studies that have focused on young populations, Trelle and colleagues are investigating memory recall in healthy, older adults as part of the Stanford Aging and Memory Study. In new research, published May 29 in eLife , this team has found that memory recall processes in the brains of older adults can look very similar to those previously observed in the brains of young adults. However, for those seniors who had more trouble remembering, evidence for these processes was noticeably diminished.

By gaining a better understanding of memory function in older adults, these researchers hope to someday enable earlier and more precise predictions of when memory failures signal increased risk for dementia.

A striking similarity

When Anthony Wagner, the Lucie Stern Professor in the Social Sciences at Stanford's School of Humanities and Sciences, was a graduate student at Stanford in the '90s, he conducted some of the first fMRI studies of memory formation. At that time, state-of-the-art imaging and analysis technologies only allowed measurement of the magnitude of activity from a centimeter-and-a-half section of the brain.

In contrast, the current study measured activity from the whole brain at high-resolution, and analyses not only focused on the magnitude of activity but also on the memory information that is contained in patterns of brain activity.

"It's exciting to have basic science tools that allow us to witness when a memory is being replayed in an individual mind and to draw on these neural processes to explain why some older adults remember better than others," said Wagner, who is senior author of the paper. "As a graduate student, I would never have predicted that we would do this kind of science someday."

In the experiment, 100 participants between the ages of 60 and 82 had their brains scanned as they studied words paired with pictures of famous people and places. Then, during a scanned memory test, they were prompted with words they had seen and asked to recall the associated picture. The memory test was designed to assess one's ability to remember specific associations between elements of an event, a form of memory that is often disproportionately affected by aging.

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In the scans, the researchers observed that the brain processes that support remembering in older adults resemble those in younger populations: when people remember, there is an increase in hippocampal activity - a brain structure long known to be important for remembering events - along with the reinstatement of activity patterns in the cortex that were present when the event was initially experienced. That is, remembering entails neural time travel, replaying patterns that were previously established in the brain.

"It was striking that we were able to replicate this moment-to-moment relationship between hippocampal activity, replay in the cortex, and memory recall, which has previously been observed only in healthy younger adults," said Trelle, who is lead author of the paper. "In fact, we could predict whether or not an individual would remember at a given moment in time based on the information carried in patterns of brain activity."

The researchers found that, on average, recall ability declined with age. Critically, however, regardless of one's age, stronger hippocampal activity and replay in the cortex was linked to better memory performance. This was true not only for the memory test conducted during the scan but also memory tests administered on a different day of the study. This intriguing finding suggests that fMRI measures of brain activity during memory recall are tapping into stable differences across individuals, and may provide a window into brain health.

Only the beginning

This research lays the foundation for many future investigations of memory in older adults in the Stanford Aging and Memory Study cohort. These will include work to further detail the process of memory creation and recall, studies of change in memory performance over time, and research that pairs fMRI studies with other kinds of health data, such as changes in brain structure and the build-up of proteins in the brain that are linked to Alzheimer's disease.

The ultimate aim is to develop new and sensitive tools to identify individuals who are at increased risk for Alzheimer's disease before significant memory decline occurs.

"We're beginning to ask whether individual differences in the ability to mentally travel back in time can be explained by asymptomatic disease that impacts the brain and predicts future clinical diagnosis," said Wagner. "We're hopeful that our work, which requires rich collaborations across disciplines, will inform clinical problems and advance human health."

Stanford University

Trelle, A.N., et al. (2020) Hippocampal and cortical mechanisms at retrieval explain variability in episodic remembering in older adults. eLife . doi.org/10.7554/eLife.55335 .

Posted in: Medical Science News | Medical Research News | Healthcare News

Tags: Aging , Alzheimer's Disease , Brain , Cortex , Dementia , Diagnostics , Imaging , Neurology , Radiology , Research , Seniors , Tsai

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Loneliness Worse for Memory Than Social Isolation

Summary: A new study finds that loneliness impacts memory more negatively than social isolation among older adults. Those who are both socially isolated and lonely experience the greatest memory decline, but loneliness alone also significantly harms memory.

The study emphasizes the need for targeted community programs to address these issues. These findings highlight the importance of addressing loneliness to support cognitive health in aging populations.

  • Greater Impact: Loneliness has a more significant negative impact on memory than social isolation.
  • Study Duration: Research examined middle-aged and older adults over six years.
  • Community Programs: Targeted interventions are needed for those who are both isolated and lonely.

Source: University of Waterloo

About a third of Canadians feel lonely, and a study from the University of Waterloo shows it has a greater negative impact on memory than even social isolation, though both present a significant risk to the aging population.

Loneliness is a subjective emotion that people might feel even while engaging in social activities. It is often associated with depression and an increase in stress hormones that may contribute to impaired memory.

This shows a man sitting alone on a bench.

Waterloo researchers examined four combinations of social isolation and loneliness and their effect on memory in middle-aged and older adults over a six-year period. These combinations include being socially isolated and lonely, being only socially isolated, being only lonely and being neither.

“As we expected, people who were both socially isolated and lonely had the greatest decline in memory, which intensified over the six years,” said Ji Won Kang, lead author on the paper and a PhD candidate in the School of Public Health Sciences at Waterloo.

“But we were surprised to find that loneliness alone had the second-greatest impact on memory, even though so many studies report on the dangers of social isolation without considering loneliness.”

Those who aren’t lonely but are socially isolated may be stimulating their mental capacity with solo activities, such as reading, playing games and engaging in hobbies that improve memory and stimulate the brain, despite not engaging in social activities.

Kang hopes the findings of this research will highlight the need for community programs, especially for the combined group of older adults who are both socially isolated and lonely, and therefore at the highest risk of memory impairment.

“Older adults in the lonely category often have lower incomes than the other groups and may have structural barriers and health conditions preventing them from connecting to their communities,” she said.

“A solution could be to implement transportation or home-visit programs— something to address the societal issues that lead to them being more isolated.”

The group who is just lonely is the next priority, requiring a different approach.

“We would need to know what is causing their loneliness,” Kang said. “They may be connected socially and have close relationships, but for example, maybe their marriage is falling apart and they would benefit from counselling.”

The study was an interdisciplinary project between the School of Public Health Sciences and the Department of Statistics and Actuarial Science at Waterloo. 

About this loneliness and memory research news

Author: Pamela Smyth Source: University of Waterloo Contact: Pamela Smyth – University of Waterloo Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Open access. “ Exploring the differential impacts of social isolation, loneliness, and their combination on the memory of an aging population: A 6-year longitudinal study of the CLSA ” by Ji Won Kang et al. Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics

Exploring the differential impacts of social isolation, loneliness, and their combination on the memory of an aging population: A 6-year longitudinal study of the CLSA

Memory plays a crucial role in cognitive health. Social isolation (SI) and loneliness (LON) are recognized risk factors for global cognition, although their combined effects on memory have been understudied in the literature.

This study used three waves of data over six years from the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging to examine whether SI and LON are individually and jointly associated with memory in community-dwelling middle-aged and older adults ( n  = 14,208).

LON was assessed with the question: “In the last week, how often did you feel lonely?”.

SI was measured using an index based on marital/cohabiting status, retirement status, social activity participation, and social network contacts.

Memory was evaluated with combined z-scores from two administrations of the Rey Auditory Verbal Learning Test (immediate-recall, delayed-recall).

We conducted our analyses using all available data across the three timepoints and retained participants with missing covariate data. Linear mixed models were used to regress combined memory scores onto SI and LON, adjusting for sociodemographic, health, functional ability, and lifestyle variables.

Experiencing both SI and LON had the greatest inverse effect on memory (least-squares mean: -0.80 [95 % confidence-interval: -1.22, -0.39]), followed by LON alone (-0.73 [-1.13, -0.34]), then SI alone (-0.69 [-1.09, -0.29]), and lastly by being neither lonely nor isolated (-0.65 [-1.05, -0.25]). Sensitivity analyses confirmed this hierarchy of effects.

Policies developed to enhance memory in middle-aged and older adults might achieve greater benefits when targeting the alleviation of both SI and LON rather than one or the other individually.

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A rare mutation protects against Alzheimer's disease, Stanford-led research finds

Researchers have discovered that a rare mutation inherited with the APOE4 gene variant protects against Alzheimer's, shedding new light on ways to counteract high-risk genes for the disease.

May 31, 2022 - By Hadley Leggett

Michael Greicius

Michael Greicius

Nearly 30 years after the discovery of the first gene linked to the development of Alzheimer’s disease, scientists still don’t understand why some people who inherit high-risk genes go on to develop memory loss, confusion and cognitive decline, while others don’t.

Now, through analysis of massive genetic datasets, an international collaboration led by  Michael Greicius , MD, professor of neurology at Stanford Medicine , has found a rare mutation that protects against Alzheimer’s in individuals who are genetically predisposed to the disease. Called the R251G variant, this mutation changes one amino acid (proteins are essentially long chains of varying amino acids) of a protein known as apolipoprotein E, or APOE.

“Our group has been interested in the genetics of APOE for a long time,” said Greicius, the Iqbal Farrukh and Asad Jamal Professor and senior author of the research, published in JAMA Neurology May 31. How this gene works in Alzheimer’s is complex, Greicius said, because APOE codes for a protein that does many different things, including transporting fats and cholesterol in the blood and binding to neurons in the brain.

While the newly discovered mutation is rare — found in fewer than 1 in 1,000 individuals — its protective qualities could help researchers untangle a question that’s been plaguing them for decades: Why do certain variants of the APOE gene increase a person’s risk for developing Alzheimer’s as much as 10-fold, and how could new treatments reduce that risk?

Complicated genetics

Alzheimer’s disease is divided into two categories: late-onset, which strikes after age 65 and is the most common form of the disease, and early-onset, which can affect patients as early as the mid-30s. (Early-onset Alzheimer’s accounts for less than 5-10% of cases.) Unlike the early-onset form, which is determined almost entirely by genetics, late-onset Alzheimer’s is caused by a variety of genetic, environmental and other unknown factors.

Yann Le Guen

Yann Le Guen

The strongest genetic determinant of a person's risk for late-onset Alzheimer's is the APOE gene variant. Just like with other genes, every person inherits two copies of the APOE gene. There are three common variants of APOE, each carrying different levels of risk for developing Alzheimer's disease.

The most common variant, called APOE3, neither increases nor decreases one's chance for Alzheimer's. APOE2 is protective, and APOE4 carries an elevated risk for disease development. About 25% of people with European ancestry have one copy of APOE4, which more than doubles their chances of developing late-onset Alzheimer's. Another 2% to 3% of people have two copies of the variant, which renders them 8 to 10 times more likely to get the disease. 

That’s what makes the discovery of this mutation so exciting. Although the R251G mutation is rare, it’s co-inherited with the high-risk APOE4 variant, meaning that every person with a copy of the R251G mutation also has a copy of the APOE4 variant. But unlike most people with APOE4, these individuals have no increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s: The single amino acid change caused by R251G neutralizes the risk normally caused by APOE4.

“Identifying genetic variants counterbalancing the risk of APOE4 may shed new light on its role in Alzheimer’s disease development,” said Stanford neurology researcher  Yann Le Guen , PhD, who shares lead authorship of the paper with Stanford neurology researcher  Michael Belloy , PhD. “This finding could help develop new drugs mimicking the effect of the protective genetic variant to reduce the risk of disease.”

How APOE4 raises risk: a persistent mystery

If scientists could figure out the molecular mechanism by which APOE gene variants make people more or less susceptible to Alzheimer’s, they could develop therapies to prevent the disease, Greicius said. “We’re coming up with approaches now that are pretty good at knocking down a gene that we’re sure is bad.”

But in the case of Alzheimer’s, scientists don’t know whether the APOE4 variant increases risk by blocking normal activity of the APOE protein (a “loss of function” mutation) or by making APOE do things it doesn’t normally do (a “gain of function” mutation). So it’s not as simple as knocking out a “bad gene.”

“We’re essentially a full 30 years after those first studies linked APOE4 to Alzheimer’s disease,” Greicius said, “yet this basic question remains open.”

Determining exactly how APOE4 raises risk is tricky because APOE has so many different functions. In addition to raising the chances of Alzheimer’s, the APOE4 variant increases a person’s risk of heart disease and stroke, which can also contribute to cognitive decline.

“But because the effect of the R251G mutation is so potent,” Greicius said, “and because it’s co-inherited with the risk-increasing APOE4 variant, we can really start to decipher the critical features that convey this protection.” For instance, he said, you could activate the protective R251G mutation in cells growing in a lab dish and look at how the mutation changes the way APOE binds to receptors and transports fats.

Mining big datasets

In addition to R251G, the researchers reported a second protective mutation, called V236E, co-inherited with the APOE3 variant, that had been shown to reduce Alzheimer’s risk in a smaller study. In the current study, the V236E mutation decreased Alzheimer’s risk by about 60%, offering a similar level of protection as the protective APOE2 variant.

We’re coming up with approaches now that are pretty good at knocking down a gene that we’re sure is bad.

Because both the R251G and V236E mutations are quite rare, scientists were able to identify them using only very large datasets, obtained through collaboration with researchers around the world. Researchers analyzed more than 67,000 Alzheimer’s disease cases, 28,000 proxy cases (meaning individuals who have a first-degree relative with Alzheimer’s) and 340,000 healthy controls in this study.

Until the past few years, Le Guen said, the available libraries of genetic data from patients with Alzheimer’s did not include rare variants like R251G or V236E, because the existing technology relied on sampling relatively few variants, then inferring the rest. More recently, Le Guen said, new, affordable tools that look at a person’s entire genetic code have emerged, enabling scientists to scour genetic data of large and diverse cohorts of individuals with and without Alzheimer’s.

The researchers continue to search for other protective mutations in both existing datasets and human subjects, with the hope of eventually developing treatments for individuals who carry the high-risk APOE4 variant.

“If we, as a field, can figure out exactly how the R251G mutation reduces risk,” Greicius said, “then maybe we can come up with a small molecule drug that gets into the brain and mimics what R251G is doing.”

Scientists from other institutions, including the Paris Brain Institute; the University of Lille; and the ACE Alzheimer’s Center in Barcelona, Spain, also contributed to this research. A full list of collaborating institutions can be found in the manuscript.

The study was funded by National Institutes of Health (grants AG060747, AG066206 and AG066515), the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation funding program, the Alzheimer’s Association, the Iqbal Farrukh and Asad Jamal Fund, and the EU Joint Programme–Neurodegenerative Disease Research.

  • Hadley Leggett Hadley Leggett is a freelance writer.

About Stanford Medicine

Stanford Medicine is an integrated academic health system comprising the Stanford School of Medicine and adult and pediatric health care delivery systems. Together, they harness the full potential of biomedicine through collaborative research, education and clinical care for patients. For more information, please visit med.stanford.edu .

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Loneliness increases risk of age-related memory loss, finds study

by University of Waterloo

old person at window

About a third of Canadians feel lonely, and a study from the University of Waterloo shows it has a greater negative impact on memory than even social isolation, though both present a significant risk to the aging population.

Loneliness is a subjective emotion that people might feel even while engaging in social activities. It is often associated with depression and an increase in stress hormones that may contribute to impaired memory.

Waterloo researchers examined four combinations of social isolation and loneliness and their effect on memory in middle-aged and older adults over a six-year period. These combinations include being socially isolated and lonely, being only socially isolated, being only lonely and being neither.

"As we expected, people who were both socially isolated and lonely had the greatest decline in memory, which intensified over the six years," said Ji Won Kang, lead author on the paper and a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Public Health Sciences at Waterloo.

"But we were surprised to find that loneliness alone had the second-greatest impact on memory, even though so many studies report on the dangers of social isolation without considering loneliness."

The study was an interdisciplinary project between the School of Public Health Sciences and the Department of Statistics and Actuarial Science at Waterloo. The article "Exploring the differential impacts of social isolation , loneliness, and their combination on the memory of an aging population: A 6-year longitudinal study of the CLSA" was published in the Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics .

Those who aren't lonely but are socially isolated may be stimulating their mental capacity with solo activities, such as reading, playing games and engaging in hobbies that improve memory and stimulate the brain, despite not engaging in social activities .

Kang hopes the findings of this research will highlight the need for community programs, especially for the combined group of older adults who are both socially isolated and lonely, and therefore at the highest risk of memory impairment.

"Older adults in the lonely category often have lower incomes than the other groups and may have structural barriers and health conditions preventing them from connecting to their communities," she said. "A solution could be to implement transportation or home-visit programs—something to address the societal issues that lead to them being more isolated."

The group who is just lonely is the next priority, requiring a different approach.

"We would need to know what is causing their loneliness ," Kang said. "They may be connected socially and have close relationships , but for example, maybe their marriage is falling apart and they would benefit from counseling."

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Problems with Memory

Learning objectives.

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Compare and contrast the two types of amnesia
  • Discuss the unreliability of eyewitness testimony
  • Discuss encoding failure
  • Discuss the various memory errors
  • Compare and contrast the two types of interference

You may pride yourself on your amazing ability to remember the birthdates and ages of all of your friends and family members, or you may be able recall vivid details of your 5th birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese’s. However, all of us have at times felt frustrated, and even embarrassed, when our memories have failed us. There are several reasons why this happens.

Amnesia is the loss of long-term memory that occurs as the result of disease, physical trauma, or psychological trauma. Psychologist Tulving (2002) and his colleagues at the University of Toronto studied K. C. for years. K. C. suffered a traumatic head injury in a motorcycle accident and then had severe amnesia. Tulving writes,

the outstanding fact about K.C.’s mental make-up is his utter inability to remember any events, circumstances, or situations from his own life. His episodic amnesia covers his whole life, from birth to the present. The only exception is the experiences that, at any time, he has had in the last minute or two. (Tulving, 2002, p. 14)

Anterograde Amnesia

There are two common types of amnesia: anterograde amnesia and retrograde amnesia ( [link] ). Anterograde amnesia is commonly caused by brain trauma, such as a blow to the head. With anterograde amnesia , you cannot remember new information, although you can remember information and events that happened prior to your injury. The hippocampus is usually affected (McLeod, 2011). This suggests that damage to the brain has resulted in the inability to transfer information from short-term to long-term memory; that is, the inability to consolidate memories.

Many people with this form of amnesia are unable to form new episodic or semantic memories, but are still able to form new procedural memories (Bayley & Squire, 2002). This was true of H. M., which was discussed earlier. The brain damage caused by his surgery resulted in anterograde amnesia. H. M. would read the same magazine over and over, having no memory of ever reading it—it was always new to him. He also could not remember people he had met after his surgery. If you were introduced to H. M. and then you left the room for a few minutes, he would not know you upon your return and would introduce himself to you again. However, when presented the same puzzle several days in a row, although he did not remember having seen the puzzle before, his speed at solving it became faster each day (because of relearning) (Corkin, 1965, 1968).

A single-line flow diagram compares two types of amnesia. In the center is a box labeled “event” with arrows extending from both sides. Extending to the left is an arrow pointing left to the word “past”; the arrow is labeled “retrograde amnesia.” Extending to the right is an arrow pointing right to the word “present”; the arrow is labeled “anterograde amnesia.”

This diagram illustrates the timeline of retrograde and anterograde amnesia. Memory problems that extend back in time before the injury and prevent retrieval of information previously stored in long-term memory are known as retrograde amnesia. Conversely, memory problems that extend forward in time from the point of injury and prevent the formation of new memories are called anterograde amnesia.

Retrograde Amnesia

Retrograde amnesia is loss of memory for events that occurred prior to the trauma. People with retrograde amnesia cannot remember some or even all of their past. They have difficulty remembering episodic memories. What if you woke up in the hospital one day and there were people surrounding your bed claiming to be your spouse, your children, and your parents? The trouble is you don’t recognize any of them. You were in a car accident, suffered a head injury, and now have retrograde amnesia. You don’t remember anything about your life prior to waking up in the hospital. This may sound like the stuff of Hollywood movies, and Hollywood has been fascinated with the amnesia plot for nearly a century, going all the way back to the film Garden of Lies from 1915 to more recent movies such as the Jason Bourne trilogy starring Matt Damon and 50 First Dates with Drew Barrymore. However, for real-life sufferers of retrograde amnesia, like former NFL football player Scott Bolzan, the story is not a Hollywood movie. Bolzan fell, hit his head, and deleted 46 years of his life in an instant. He is now living with one of the most extreme cases of retrograde amnesia on record.

Link to Learning

View the video story profiling Scott Bolzan’s amnesia and his attempts to get his life back.

MEMORY CONSTRUCTION AND RECONSTRUCTION

The formulation of new memories is sometimes called construction , and the process of bringing up old memories is called reconstruction . Yet as we retrieve our memories, we also tend to alter and modify them. A memory pulled from long-term storage into short-term memory is flexible. New events can be added and we can change what we think we remember about past events, resulting in inaccuracies and distortions. People may not intend to distort facts, but it can happen in the process of retrieving old memories and combining them with new memories (Roediger and DeSoto, in press).

Suggestibility

When someone witnesses a crime, that person’s memory of the details of the crime is very important in catching the suspect. Because memory is so fragile, witnesses can be easily (and often accidentally) misled due to the problem of suggestibility. Suggestibility describes the effects of misinformation from external sources that leads to the creation of false memories. In the fall of 2002, a sniper in the DC area shot people at a gas station, leaving Home Depot, and walking down the street. These attacks went on in a variety of places for over three weeks and resulted in the deaths of ten people. During this time, as you can imagine, people were terrified to leave their homes, go shopping, or even walk through their neighborhoods. Police officers and the FBI worked frantically to solve the crimes, and a tip hotline was set up. Law enforcement received over 140,000 tips, which resulted in approximately 35,000 possible suspects (Newseum, n.d.).

Most of the tips were dead ends, until a white van was spotted at the site of one of the shootings. The police chief went on national television with a picture of the white van. After the news conference, several other eyewitnesses called to say that they too had seen a white van fleeing from the scene of the shooting. At the time, there were more than 70,000 white vans in the area. Police officers, as well as the general public, focused almost exclusively on white vans because they believed the eyewitnesses. Other tips were ignored. When the suspects were finally caught, they were driving a blue sedan.

As illustrated by this example, we are vulnerable to the power of suggestion, simply based on something we see on the news. Or we can claim to remember something that in fact is only a suggestion someone made. It is the suggestion that is the cause of the false memory.

Eyewitness Misidentification

Even though memory and the process of reconstruction can be fragile, police officers, prosecutors, and the courts often rely on eyewitness identification and testimony in the prosecution of criminals. However, faulty eyewitness identification and testimony can lead to wrongful convictions ( [link] ).

A bar graph is titled “Leading cause of wrongful conviction in DNA exoneration cases (source: Innocence Project).” The x-axis is labeled “leading cause,” and the y-axis is labeled “percentage of wrongful convictions (first 239 DNA exonerations).” Four bars show data: “eyewitness misidentification” is the leading cause in about 75% of cases, “forensic science” in about 49% of cases, “false confession” in about 23% of cases, and “informant” in about 18% of cases.

In studying cases where DNA evidence has exonerated people from crimes, the Innocence Project discovered that eyewitness misidentification is the leading cause of wrongful convictions (Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University, 2009).

How does this happen? In 1984, Jennifer Thompson, then a 22-year-old college student in North Carolina, was brutally raped at knifepoint. As she was being raped, she tried to memorize every detail of her rapist’s face and physical characteristics, vowing that if she survived, she would help get him convicted. After the police were contacted, a composite sketch was made of the suspect, and Jennifer was shown six photos. She chose two, one of which was of Ronald Cotton. After looking at the photos for 4–5 minutes, she said, “Yeah. This is the one,” and then she added, “I think this is the guy.” When questioned about this by the detective who asked, “You’re sure? Positive?” She said that it was him. Then she asked the detective if she did OK, and he reinforced her choice by telling her she did great. These kinds of unintended cues and suggestions by police officers can lead witnesses to identify the wrong suspect. The district attorney was concerned about her lack of certainty the first time, so she viewed a lineup of seven men. She said she was trying to decide between numbers 4 and 5, finally deciding that Cotton, number 5, “Looks most like him.” He was 22 years old.

By the time the trial began, Jennifer Thompson had absolutely no doubt that she was raped by Ronald Cotton. She testified at the court hearing, and her testimony was compelling enough that it helped convict him. How did she go from, “I think it’s the guy” and it “Looks most like him,” to such certainty? Gary Wells and Deah Quinlivan (2009) assert it’s suggestive police identification procedures, such as stacking lineups to make the defendant stand out, telling the witness which person to identify, and confirming witnesses choices by telling them “Good choice,” or “You picked the guy.”

After Cotton was convicted of the rape, he was sent to prison for life plus 50 years. After 4 years in prison, he was able to get a new trial. Jennifer Thompson once again testified against him. This time Ronald Cotton was given two life sentences. After serving 11 years in prison, DNA evidence finally demonstrated that Ronald Cotton did not commit the rape, was innocent, and had served over a decade in prison for a crime he did not commit.

To learn more about Ronald Cotton and the fallibility of memory, watch these excellent Part 1 and Part 2 videos by 60 Minutes .

Ronald Cotton’s story, unfortunately, is not unique. There are also people who were convicted and placed on death row, who were later exonerated. The Innocence Project is a non-profit group that works to exonerate falsely convicted people, including those convicted by eyewitness testimony. To learn more, you can visit http://www.innocenceproject.org.

Contrast the Cotton case with what happened in the Elizabeth Smart case. When Elizabeth was 14 years old and fast asleep in her bed at home, she was abducted at knifepoint. Her nine-year-old sister, Mary Katherine, was sleeping in the same bed and watched, terrified, as her beloved older sister was abducted. Mary Katherine was the sole eyewitness to this crime and was very fearful. In the coming weeks, the Salt Lake City police and the FBI proceeded with caution with Mary Katherine. They did not want to implant any false memories or mislead her in any way. They did not show her police line-ups or push her to do a composite sketch of the abductor. They knew if they corrupted her memory, Elizabeth might never be found. For several months, there was little or no progress on the case. Then, about 4 months after the kidnapping, Mary Katherine first recalled that she had heard the abductor’s voice prior to that night (he had worked one time as a handyman at the family’s home) and then she was able to name the person whose voice it was. The family contacted the press and others recognized him—after a total of nine months, the suspect was caught and Elizabeth Smart was returned to her family.

The Misinformation Effect

Cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Loftus has conducted extensive research on memory. She has studied false memories as well as recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse. Loftus also developed the misinformation effect paradigm , which holds that after exposure to incorrect information, a person may misremember the original event.

According to Loftus, an eyewitness’s memory of an event is very flexible due to the misinformation effect. To test this theory, Loftus and John Palmer (1974) asked 45 U.S. college students to estimate the speed of cars using different forms of questions ( [link] ). The participants were shown films of car accidents and were asked to play the role of the eyewitness and describe what happened. They were asked, “About how fast were the cars going when they (smashed, collided, bumped, hit, contacted) each other?” The participants estimated the speed of the cars based on the verb used.

Participants who heard the word “smashed” estimated that the cars were traveling at a much higher speed than participants who heard the word “contacted.” The implied information about speed, based on the verb they heard, had an effect on the participants’ memory of the accident. In a follow-up one week later, participants were asked if they saw any broken glass (none was shown in the accident pictures). Participants who had been in the “smashed” group were more than twice as likely to indicate that they did remember seeing glass. Loftus and Palmer demonstrated that a leading question encouraged them to not only remember the cars were going faster, but to also falsely remember that they saw broken glass.

Photograph A shows two cars that have crashed into each other. Part B is a bar graph titled “perceived speed based on questioner’s verb (source: Loftus and Palmer, 1974).” The x-axis is labeled “questioner’s verb, and the y-axis is labeled “perceived speed (mph).” Five bars share data: “smashed” was perceived at about 41 mph, “collided” at about 39 mph, “bumped” at about 37 mph, “hit” at about 34 mph, and “contacted” at about 32 mph.

When people are asked leading questions about an event, their memory of the event may be altered. (credit a: modification of work by Rob Young)

Controversies over Repressed and Recovered Memories

Other researchers have described how whole events, not just words, can be falsely recalled, even when they did not happen. The idea that memories of traumatic events could be repressed has been a theme in the field of psychology, beginning with Sigmund Freud, and the controversy surrounding the idea continues today.

Recall of false autobiographical memories is called false memory syndrome . This syndrome has received a lot of publicity, particularly as it relates to memories of events that do not have independent witnesses—often the only witnesses to the abuse are the perpetrator and the victim (e.g., sexual abuse).

On one side of the debate are those who have recovered memories of childhood abuse years after it occurred. These researchers argue that some children’s experiences have been so traumatizing and distressing that they must lock those memories away in order to lead some semblance of a normal life. They believe that repressed memories can be locked away for decades and later recalled intact through hypnosis and guided imagery techniques (Devilly, 2007).

Research suggests that having no memory of childhood sexual abuse is quite common in adults. For instance, one large-scale study conducted by John Briere and Jon Conte (1993) revealed that 59% of 450 men and women who were receiving treatment for sexual abuse that had occurred before age 18 had forgotten their experiences. Ross Cheit (2007) suggested that repressing these memories created psychological distress in adulthood. The Recovered Memory Project was created so that victims of childhood sexual abuse can recall these memories and allow the healing process to begin (Cheit, 2007; Devilly, 2007).

On the other side, Loftus has challenged the idea that individuals can repress memories of traumatic events from childhood, including sexual abuse, and then recover those memories years later through therapeutic techniques such as hypnosis, guided visualization, and age regression.

Loftus is not saying that childhood sexual abuse doesn’t happen, but she does question whether or not those memories are accurate, and she is skeptical of the questioning process used to access these memories, given that even the slightest suggestion from the therapist can lead to misinformation effects. For example, researchers Stephen Ceci and Maggie Brucks (1993, 1995) asked three-year-old children to use an anatomically correct doll to show where their pediatricians had touched them during an exam. Fifty-five percent of the children pointed to the genital/anal area on the dolls, even when they had not received any form of genital exam.

Ever since Loftus published her first studies on the suggestibility of eyewitness testimony in the 1970s, social scientists, police officers, therapists, and legal practitioners have been aware of the flaws in interview practices. Consequently, steps have been taken to decrease suggestibility of witnesses. One way is to modify how witnesses are questioned. When interviewers use neutral and less leading language, children more accurately recall what happened and who was involved (Goodman, 2006; Pipe, 1996; Pipe, Lamb, Orbach, & Esplin, 2004). Another change is in how police lineups are conducted. It’s recommended that a blind photo lineup be used. This way the person administering the lineup doesn’t know which photo belongs to the suspect, minimizing the possibility of giving leading cues. Additionally, judges in some states now inform jurors about the possibility of misidentification. Judges can also suppress eyewitness testimony if they deem it unreliable.

“I’ve a grand memory for forgetting,” quipped Robert Louis Stevenson. Forgetting refers to loss of information from long-term memory. We all forget things, like a loved one’s birthday, someone’s name, or where we put our car keys. As you’ve come to see, memory is fragile, and forgetting can be frustrating and even embarrassing. But why do we forget? To answer this question, we will look at several perspectives on forgetting.

Encoding Failure

Sometimes memory loss happens before the actual memory process begins, which is encoding failure. We can’t remember something if we never stored it in our memory in the first place. This would be like trying to find a book on your e-reader that you never actually purchased and downloaded. Often, in order to remember something, we must pay attention to the details and actively work to process the information (effortful encoding). Lots of times we don’t do this. For instance, think of how many times in your life you’ve seen a penny. Can you accurately recall what the front of a U.S. penny looks like? When researchers Raymond Nickerson and Marilyn Adams (1979) asked this question, they found that most Americans don’t know which one it is. The reason is most likely encoding failure. Most of us never encode the details of the penny. We only encode enough information to be able to distinguish it from other coins. If we don’t encode the information, then it’s not in our long-term memory, so we will not be able to remember it.

Four illustrations of nickels have minor differences in the placement and orientation of text.

Can you tell which coin, (a), (b), (c), or (d) is the accurate depiction of a US nickel? The correct answer is (c).

Memory Errors

Psychologist Daniel Schacter (2001), a well-known memory researcher, offers seven ways our memories fail us. He calls them the seven sins of memory and categorizes them into three groups: forgetting, distortion, and intrusion ( [link] ).

Schacter’s Seven Sins of Memory
Sin Type Description Example
Transience Forgetting Accessibility of memory decreases over time Forget events that occurred long ago
absentmindedness Forgetting Forgetting caused by lapses in attention Forget where your phone is
Blocking Forgetting Accessibility of information is temporarily blocked Tip of the tongue
Misattribution Distortion Source of memory is confused Recalling a dream memory as a waking memory
Suggestibility Distortion False memories Result from leading questions
Bias Distortion Memories distorted by current belief system Align memories to current beliefs
Persistence Intrusion Inability to forget undesirable memories Traumatic events

Let’s look at the first sin of the forgetting errors: transience , which means that memories can fade over time. Here’s an example of how this happens. Nathan’s English teacher has assigned his students to read the novel To Kill a Mockingbird . Nathan comes home from school and tells his mom he has to read this book for class. “Oh, I loved that book!” she says. Nathan asks her what the book is about, and after some hesitation she says, “Well . . . I know I read the book in high school, and I remember that one of the main characters is named Scout, and her father is an attorney, but I honestly don’t remember anything else.” Nathan wonders if his mother actually read the book, and his mother is surprised she can’t recall the plot. What is going on here is storage decay: unused information tends to fade with the passage of time.

In 1885, German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus analyzed the process of memorization. First, he memorized lists of nonsense syllables. Then he measured how much he learned (retained) when he attempted to relearn each list. He tested himself over different periods of time from 20 minutes later to 30 days later. The result is his famous forgetting curve ( [link] ). Due to storage decay, an average person will lose 50% of the memorized information after 20 minutes and 70% of the information after 24 hours (Ebbinghaus, 1885/1964). Your memory for new information decays quickly and then eventually levels out.

A line graph has an x-axis labeled “elapsed time since learning” with a scale listing these intervals: 0, 20, and 60 minutes; 9, 24, and 48 hours; and 6 and 31 days. The y-axis is labeled “retention (%)” with a scale of zero to 100. The line reflects these approximate data points: 0 minutes is 100%, 20 minutes is 55%, 60 minutes is 40%, 9 hours is 37%, 24 hours is 30%, 48 hours is 25%, 6 days is 20%, and 31 days is 10%.

The Ebbinghaus forgetting curve shows how quickly memory for new information decays.

Are you constantly losing your cell phone? Have you ever driven back home to make sure you turned off the stove? Have you ever walked into a room for something, but forgotten what it was? You probably answered yes to at least one, if not all, of these examples—but don’t worry, you are not alone. We are all prone to committing the memory error known as absentmindedness . These lapses in memory are caused by breaks in attention or our focus being somewhere else.

Cynthia, a psychologist, recalls a time when she recently committed the memory error of absentmindedness.

When I was completing court-ordered psychological evaluations, each time I went to the court, I was issued a temporary identification card with a magnetic strip which would open otherwise locked doors. As you can imagine, in a courtroom, this identification is valuable and important and no one wanted it to be lost or be picked up by a criminal. At the end of the day, I would hand in my temporary identification. One day, when I was almost done with an evaluation, my daughter’s day care called and said she was sick and needed to be picked up. It was flu season, I didn’t know how sick she was, and I was concerned. I finished up the evaluation in the next ten minutes, packed up my tools, and rushed to drive to my daughter’s day care. After I picked up my daughter, I could not remember if I had handed back my identification or if I had left it sitting out on a table. I immediately called the court to check. It turned out that I had handed back my identification. Why could I not remember that? (personal communication, September 5, 2013)

When have you experienced absentmindedness?

“I just went and saw this movie called Oblivion , and it had that famous actor in it. Oh, what’s his name? He’s been in all of those movies, like The Shawshank Redemption and The Dark Knight trilogy. I think he’s even won an Oscar. Oh gosh, I can picture his face in my mind, and hear his distinctive voice, but I just can’t think of his name! This is going to bug me until I can remember it!” This particular error can be so frustrating because you have the information right on the tip of your tongue. Have you ever experienced this? If so, you’ve committed the error known as blocking : you can’t access stored information ( [link] ).

A photograph shows Morgan Freeman.

Blocking is also known as tip-of-the-tongue (TOT) phenomenon. The memory is right there, but you can’t seem to recall it, just like not being able to remember the name of that very famous actor, Morgan Freeman. (credit: modification of work by D. Miller)

Now let’s take a look at the three errors of distortion: misattribution, suggestibility, and bias. Misattribution happens when you confuse the source of your information. Let’s say Alejandro was dating Lucia and they saw the first Hobbit movie together. Then they broke up and Alejandro saw the second Hobbit movie with someone else. Later that year, Alejandro and Lucia get back together. One day, they are discussing how the Hobbit books and movies are different and Alejandro says to Lucia, “I loved watching the second movie with you and seeing you jump out of your seat during that super scary part.” When Lucia responded with a puzzled and then angry look, Alejandro realized he’d committed the error of misattribution.

What if someone is a victim of rape shortly after watching a television program? Is it possible that the victim could actually blame the rape on the person she saw on television because of misattribution? This is exactly what happened to Donald Thomson.

Australian eyewitness expert Donald Thomson appeared on a live TV discussion about the unreliability of eyewitness memory. He was later arrested, placed in a lineup and identified by a victim as the man who had raped her. The police charged Thomson although the rape had occurred at the time he was on TV. They dismissed his alibi that he was in plain view of a TV audience and in the company of the other discussants, including an assistant commissioner of police. . . . Eventually, the investigators discovered that the rapist had attacked the woman as she was watching TV—the very program on which Thomson had appeared. Authorities eventually cleared Thomson. The woman had confused the rapist’s face with the face that she had seen on TV. (Baddeley, 2004, p. 133)

The second distortion error is suggestibility. Suggestibility is similar to misattribution, since it also involves false memories, but it’s different. With misattribution you create the false memory entirely on your own, which is what the victim did in the Donald Thomson case above. With suggestibility, it comes from someone else, such as a therapist or police interviewer asking leading questions of a witness during an interview.

Memories can also be affected by bias , which is the final distortion error. Schacter (2001) says that your feelings and view of the world can actually distort your memory of past events. There are several types of bias: Stereotypical bias involves racial and gender biases. For example, when Asian American and European American research participants were presented with a list of names, they more frequently incorrectly remembered typical African American names such as Jamal and Tyrone to be associated with the occupation basketball player, and they more frequently incorrectly remembered typical White names such as Greg and Howard to be associated with the occupation of politician (Payne, Jacoby, & Lambert, 2004). Egocentric bias involves enhancing our memories of the past (Payne et al., 2004). Did you really score the winning goal in that big soccer match, or did you just assist? Hindsight bias happens when we think an outcome was inevitable after the fact. This is the “I knew it all along” phenomenon. The reconstructive nature of memory contributes to hindsight bias (Carli, 1999). We remember untrue events that seem to confirm that we knew the outcome all along.

Have you ever had a song play over and over in your head? How about a memory of a traumatic event, something you really do not want to think about? When you keep remembering something, to the point where you can’t “get it out of your head” and it interferes with your ability to concentrate on other things, it is called persistence . It’s Schacter’s seventh and last memory error. It’s actually a failure of our memory system because we involuntarily recall unwanted memories, particularly unpleasant ones ( [link] ). For instance, you witness a horrific car accident on the way to work one morning, and you can’t concentrate on work because you keep remembering the scene.

A photograph shows two soldiers physically fighting.

Many veterans of military conflicts involuntarily recall unwanted, unpleasant memories. (credit: Department of Defense photo by U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Michael R. Holzworth)

Interference

Sometimes information is stored in our memory, but for some reason it is inaccessible. This is known as interference, and there are two types: proactive interference and retroactive interference ( [link] ). Have you ever gotten a new phone number or moved to a new address, but right after you tell people the old (and wrong) phone number or address? When the new year starts, do you find you accidentally write the previous year? These are examples of proactive interference : when old information hinders the recall of newly learned information. Retroactive interference happens when information learned more recently hinders the recall of older information. For example, this week you are studying about Freud’s Psychoanalytic Theory. Next week you study the humanistic perspective of Maslow and Rogers. Thereafter, you have trouble remembering Freud’s Psychosexual Stages of Development because you can only remember Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

A diagram shows two types of interference. A box with the text “learn combination to high school locker, 17–04–32” is followed by an arrow pointing right toward a box labeled “memory of old locker combination interferes with recall of new gym locker combination, ??–??–??”; the arrow connecting the two boxes contains the text “proactive interference (old information hinders recall of new information.” Beneath that is a second part of the diagram. A box with the text “knowledge of new email address interferes with recall of old email address, nvayala@???” is followed by an arrow pointing left toward the “early event” box and away from another box labeled “learn sibling’s new college email address, npatel@siblingcollege.edu”; the arrow connecting the two boxes contains the text “retroactive interference (new information hinders recall of old information.”

Sometimes forgetting is caused by a failure to retrieve information. This can be due to interference, either retroactive or proactive.

All of us at times have felt dismayed, frustrated, and even embarrassed when our memories have failed us. Our memory is flexible and prone to many errors, which is why eyewitness testimony has been found to be largely unreliable. There are several reasons why forgetting occurs. In cases of brain trauma or disease, forgetting may be due to amnesia. Another reason we forget is due to encoding failure. We can’t remember something if we never stored it in our memory in the first place. Schacter presents seven memory errors that also contribute to forgetting. Sometimes, information is actually stored in our memory, but we cannot access it due to interference. Proactive interference happens when old information hinders the recall of newly learned information. Retroactive interference happens when information learned more recently hinders the recall of older information.

Self Check Questions

Critical thinking questions.

1. Compare and contrast the two types of interference.

2. Compare and contrast the two types of amnesia.

Personal Application Questions

3. Which of the seven memory errors presented by Schacter have you committed? Provide an example of each one.

4. Jurors place a lot of weight on eyewitness testimony. Imagine you are an attorney representing a defendant who is accused of robbing a convenience store. Several eyewitnesses have been called to testify against your client. What would you tell the jurors about the reliability of eyewitness testimony?

1. There are two types of interference: retroactive and proactive. Both are types of forgetting caused by a failure to retrieve information. With retroactive interference, new information hinders the ability to recall older information. With proactive interference, it’s the opposite: old information hinders the recall of newly learned information.

2. There are two types of amnesia: retrograde and anterograde. Both involve the loss of long-term memory that occurs as the result of disease, physical trauma, or psychological trauma. With anterograde amnesia, you cannot remember new information; however, you can remember information and events that happened prior to your injury. Retrograde amnesia is the exact opposite: you experience loss of memory for events that occurred before the trauma.

  • Psychology. Authored by : OpenStax College. Located at : http://cnx.org/contents/[email protected]:1/Psychology . License : CC BY: Attribution . License Terms : Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col11629/latest/.

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