We all take memory for granted. Though people dealing with a family member suffering from dementia are acutely aware of how devastating loss of memory can be, the rest of us simply ignore the issue of memory until we forget something important. But as we grow older, we become increasingly anxious about each memory lapse we experience along the way.
But what is memory? And how are we able to learn and retain new information? While a century and a half of memory research has given us some understanding of the cognitive processes that relate to memory and learning, the general consensus among researchers is that we still have a long way to go. According to Colin M. MacLeod of the University of Waterloo, one of the most beautiful things about learning is that it is never completed. “It has been my privilege to be part of this quest to understand what makes us ourselves for 40 years, decades that have passed with the fleeting, yet inevitable quality of memory itself.” he said in a recent article in Canadian Psychology.
In that same article, which he titled “The Six Rs of Remembering”, Doctor MacLeod described his preoccupation with the letter “R” and the way that it underlines the cognitive processes that make memory work. Basically, the six Rs are:
Taking each of the six Rs in order, recoding involves changing our perception of the world in a way that makes it easier to remember. One of the best-known examples is the basic limit on the number of pieces of information we can hold in our short-term memory at any one time. According to George Armitage Miller and his famous paper, The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two, our inability to hold more than seven bits of information at any time means that we need to recode that information to make it easier to remember.
That usually involves chunking, or grouping the information into smaller chunks or other memory aids that allow information to be remembered later. One example of recoding that MacLeod mentions in his article is the production effect, that simply saying a word aloud makes it easier to remember than reading the word silently. While being a very simple form of recoding, the production effect can have a powerful effect on later recall.
Once information is recoded, whether it can be remembered later often depends on rehearsal, or practicing something we are trying to memorize. Different strategies for rehearsing include rote rehearsal, or simply repeating the information silently in our head, or saying it out loud which can be even more effective. Based on a the multi-store memory model proposed by Richard Atkinson and Richard Shiffrin, information usually lasts no longer than 30 seconds without being actively rehearsed.
Along with rehearsing to keep information from being forgotten quickly (maintenance rehearsal), we also rehearse material to relate it to information we already know (elaborative rehearsal). Anyone who pulled an all-nighter cramming for a big exam will have first-hand experience of this, not to mention the uncomfortable feeling when factoids come back to us years later (whether we want them to or not). Rehearsal is also linked to how strongly motivated we are to remember things later on since we are less likely to rehearse information we do not consider important.
Even when we think we have forgotten something we once learned, a trace of that memory still remains. Thus, learning something we once learned becomes much easier the second time around. This brings us to the next R, relearning. In his article, Dr. McLeod brings up the often-remembered saying, “You never forget how to ride a bicycle”. Even someone who has not ridden a bicycle since childhood can often find themselves picking up the skill fairly quickly since the trace memory helps with relearning. Hermann Ebbinghaus first observed this back in the 19th century with his studies on learning and relearning nonsense syllables and it has been a part of memory research ever since. In fact, relearning happens every time we find ourselves in a familiar situation with memory “priming” shaping how we react.
Of course, along with learning information, we also have to retrieve that information whenever we happen to need it. That brings us to the three main retrieval strategies: reminding, retrieval, and reconstruction. Reminding involves the linking of a memory to specific triggers we encounter that cue us to remember things that we had previously forgotten. The example Dr. MacLeod gives is noticing a neighbour in his driveway which triggers us to remember that we needed to borrow lawn chairs from him for an upcoming party. There is a whole literature on prospective memory, or remembering to remember future events such as medical appointments which is largely based on reminders.
Of course, once the reminder triggers recall, that memory still needs to be retrieved which is not automatic. In many cases, whether we remember something depends on the circumstance when the memory was first formed. This can be graphically demonstrated with traumatic flashbacks where trauma victims find themselves “reliving” their experience when placed in a similar situation that triggers the traumatic memory. People who have been in a serious traffic accident can find themselves avoiding the intersection where that accident happened because of the disturbing memories involved. Still, no matter how vivid a memory seems to be, they always change over time. This is especially true for “familiar” memories that we retrieve over and over again.
Which bring us to the final R, reconstruction. According to Ulric Neisser and his 1967 book, Cognitive Psychology, memory is as much about top-down processing as it is about the bottom-up recall of what we experienced. In other words, we often need to reconstruct memories based on those few details we can recall along with whatever outside information we can take in to “flesh out” those memories.
This, by the way, leads to the inevitable problem with “false memory” which can often be implanted by misleading memory cues that we use to reconstruct what we are trying to remember. It also raises disturbing questions about how much our criminal justice system depends on eyewitness testimony which can often change for witnesses who are repeatedly asked to recall an important event and give testimony based on that memory.
In summarizing his work studying the Six Rs of memory and learning, Colin MacLeod points out that memory is always changing whether we want it to or not. Though we tend to think of our memory as a videotape machine playing back details of our life, details become blurred and distorted over time. Even “flashbulb memories”, vivid memories of traumatic or upsetting experiences can be changed by the number of times we try recalling them. According to Dr. MacLeod, “each time we retrieve and tell our story, we are reconstructing it, taking the pieces—old and new—and assembling them into a plausible account, one that will subsequently modify our memory yet again.”
The more we learn about the Six Rs, the more complex memory seems, and the more we understand how unreliable the process of recalling past events can be. So the next time you find yourself arguing with someone because you are both remembering the same event differently, consider the Six Rs and the very nature of memory itself.