Memory - Cognitive psychology

Psychology: an introduction (Oxford Southern Africa) - Leslie Swartz 2011

Cognitive psychology

Clifford van Ommen


After studying this chapter you should be able to:

•demonstrate that there are a variety of approaches to studying memory

•understand the basis of the information-processing (IP) approach

•explain the IP concepts of acquisition, storage and retrieval

•describe the concepts used in, and the differences between, the two-store, multi-store and working memory models of memory

•define forgetting and some of the concepts developed in investigating this process

•describe the basis of the ecological approach to studying memory

•outline the importance of context and culture in the process of remembering

•describe some of the criticisms of laboratory-based research as well as memory research more generally.


Nosipho, when reaching this section of the course, started thinking about her own memory and how she used to struggle to memorise her work for tests and exams while she was at school. She hadn’t seemed to be able to keep information in her head. Often she would think she had learned properly for a test, only to find the answers disappearing the moment she tried to put them down on paper. Early on at university, she had decided to take the problem in hand and had gone to the learning centre to ask for some help. There she had been taught various tricks and strategies for being able to remember more effectively. She knew now that it wasn’t enough just to read over her notes when she learned as she had done at school. Instead, if she was going to be able to remember something, she needed to be more actively involved in repeating back the information to herself while she was learning as well as sometimes even writing things down and testing herself. This active kind of remembering seemed to work much better. She also learned ways of triggering her memory during tests and exams. She found that if she took the first letters of a list of ideas and made them into a word it was much easier to recall the whole list. Sometimes she drew a funny picture of the material she was trying to learn and in the exam she would find herself smiling as she visualised it. It not only cheered her up during exams, she also found that remembering the picture jogged her memory for the information she needed.

Now that Nosipho was feeling more relaxed about her ability to remember information for exams, she recognised how amazing people’s memories, including her own, actually were. She could remember things that had happened to her right back to when she was about five years old. She could remember several poems she had learned in primary school and all the children she had been friends with. She could remember the names of all sorts of products on the supermarket shelves, movie actors and actresses, different makes of car, and directions for how to get around in the city. ’It really is incredible when you think about how much complicated information each person remembers in a lifetime,’ she thought to herself.


Take a moment and jot down what you understand by the term ’memory’. It is a word in common use in contemporary society, so you should already have some idea to what it may refer.

Now let us also consider three dictionary definitions of memory. The Compact Oxford English dictionary of current English (2005) defines it as ’the faculty by which the mind stores and remembers information’, the Cambridge dictionary of American English (1999) defines it as the ’ ability to remember’, and the online One Look Dictionary Search (n.d.) describes it as ’the power of retaining and recalling past experience’. All of these definitions refer to some capacity to bring something mental from the past into the present. Would you define memory in a similar way?

Modern psychology has always been concerned with the study of memory. Consequently, a vast field of memory research has developed. This chapter will introduce a variety of core terms, briefly present some contemporary research, and also demonstrate how various psychologists have developed our understanding of what memory is.


Take a few minutes to tackle the following questions and tasks (which will be referred to throughout the chapter):

1.What primary school did you attend?

2.What is your current telephone number?

3.What is the capital of Zimbabwe?

4.Try and picture, in as much detail as possible, what your bedroom looks like.

5.Read the following set of numbers once, cover them up, and write them down on a piece of paper without looking at them again: 219391945.

6.In one minute, try and write as many words as you can that begin with the letter T. Proper nouns, sentences and numbers are not allowed.

7.Open up a phonebook, look down the list of names, and keep count of the number of names you associate with someone you know or have known.

8.Get up and pretend that you are kicking a soccer ball or swinging a golf club.

9.Writing no more than a few lines, summarise a story you were recently told or which you recently read.

The information-processing approach to understanding memory

The information-processing (IP) approach to memory is very influential (see also other chapters in this section). In this approach there is a focus on memory as something that takes place in our heads. Memory is mostly studied as an internal process of the brain (a mental process), which is regarded as consisting of distinct and interconnected stages (Holt et al., 2012).

There have, however, been numerous debates regarding some of the concepts that have been developed within this approach. These have led to different trends emerging, both within and outside the IP school. The main trend has been away from the idea of memory as a purely mental process. Instead researchers have shifted their focus to include the contexts in which memorising and remembering take place. With this shift has come a decreasing emphasis on the accuracy and inaccuracy of memory and a greater acknowledgement of the practical nature of what we remember, and when.

Input, storage and output

In the context of computers, the word ’memory’ typically refers to the computer’s storage capacity, which is the amount of information it can retain without it being lost when it is switched off. Generally, since extremes of size seem to impress people, the larger the memory, the better the computer. In the same way, the quicker and greater the amount of detail a person can remember, the more impressed we are.

Computers have been used as a powerful analogy to help explain memory. In the IP approach, the memory process consists of three aspects:

•an input stage (acquisition stage), such as when we type words on a keyboard

•a storage stage, such as when we save a file on a computer’s hard drive to use again later

•an output stage (retrieval stage), such as when we call up a file from the hard drive and view it on the screen (Groome, 1999).

So, in a similar fashion to a computer, the brain is regarded as a complex information processor, of which memory is a very important part.

Consider the following example. One morning a friend invites you to a party that same evening. The IP approach would describe the basic memory process that accompanies and follows the invitation in the following way: when your friend invites you to the party, you sense, perceive and understand your friend’s words. Input has thus occurred, and the information your friend has given you is said to have been encoded. You retain this information during the day while you attend lectures and work in the library. That night, on the way home, you remember the invitation, retrieving the information from storage. This recollection is the output of the process. (The fifth item in Box 13.1 gives you another illustration of an input, storage and retrieval sequence.)

You can assist with the retrieval of particular information. To continue with the above example imagine that, just after being invited to the party, you jot down ’party’ in your diary. That night you notice the word you have written down and recall the memory about the invitation. Your diary note has acted as a cue, a trigger for you to remember a specific piece of information (the seventh item in Box 13.1 is another example of cueing).

Short-term and long-term memory

Early IP theorists conceptualised memory as consisting of two types of memory store: short-term memory and longterm memory. This became known as the two-store model of memory (Baddeley, 2007). According to Groome (1999), short-term memory (STM) refers to information that is currently in our awareness, while longterm memory (LTM) refers to the information of which we are not currently conscious but which is being kept in storage. Let us refer to the fourth item in Box 13.1. When you are picturing your bedroom in your imagination, that information is in your STM, because you are currently aware of this information. You have retrieved this information from storage, so prior to being cued with this task, the image you evoked in your STM was in your LTM. Information has thus passed from your LTM to your STM.

According to Lezak, Howieson, Bigler and Tranel (2012), the STM only retains information for a few seconds, unless it is rehearsed, i.e. unless you continuously repeat the information to yourself. You are probably most aware of this process when trying to remember a phone number without having a pen and paper at hand to write it down. The STM is also often regarded as a route through which information can be stored in the LTM. If rehearsed enough, information could be stored in the LTM, where it could be retained for a long time, from hours to even decades. (The second item in Box 13.1 is an example of LTM information.)

Atkinson and Shiffrin (1968) extended the two-store model of memory by adding a third component called the sensory register. This structure was understood as receiving the initial input (e.g. a visual, tactile or acoustic stimulus) from the environment prior to it being recognised.

Quinlan and Dyson (2008) report that the sensory store lasts for only fractions of a second. Once the stimulus is recognised and open to rehearsal, it is regarded as being in the STM. Because Atkinson and Shiffrin’s (1968) model included several memory stores, it became known as a multi-store model of memory (see Figure 13.2); it is also known as the modal model. The sensory register could be regarded as part of perceptual processing (see Chapter 8) and includes iconic (visual) memory, echoic (acoustic) memory as well as other sensory systems (Baddeley, 2007).


Figure 13.1 Seeing the fire dancer’s light patterns shows how a visual stimulus is received by the sensory register


Figure 13.2 Atkinson and Shiffrin’s (1968) multi-store model of memory (simplified)


•Memory involves the ability to process, store, retain and recall information.

•The information-processing (IP) approach understands memory as an internal mental process. However, more recent approaches have focused on the contexts of memorising and remembering.

•Memory (much like a computer) can be thought of as having three aspects: an input stage (encoding), a storage stage and an output stage (remembering).

•Retrieval of information can be facilitated by cues.

•Early IP models saw memory as having two types of stores: short-term memory (STM) and long-term memory (LTM).

•STM only retains information for a few seconds, unless it is rehearsed; information stored in LTM can be retained for a long time (hours to decades).

•Atkinson and Shiffrin extended the two-store model of memory by adding the sensory register. This model became known as a multi-store model of memory.


The following terms are used to describe different types of long-term memory:

Explicit memory (declarative memory) refers to the conscious recollection of facts or experiences that have been encountered in the past. Three kinds are described here:

Episodic memory is a type of explicit memory that stores personal experiences that have happened at a particular time and place in the past. For example, episodic memory would store your experience of your 15th birthday party, or the occasion when you won your first tennis match. (Flashback memory is a particular type of episodic memory that is triggered by an event that has emotional significance, for example being able to recall exactly what you were doing when you heard that someone famous had died.)

Semantic memory is a type of explicit memory that stores facts or general information encountered in the past. For example, semantic memory would store your bank PIN code or your best friend’s telephone number.

Gist memory is a type of explicit memory where the main points or salient features of an event or story are recalled.

Implicit memory (procedural memory) refers to memories that exert an influence on current behaviour, but are not consciously recalled at the time. For example, when driving your car, you would not necessarily recall your driving lessons of some years previously, but the various actions necessary for driving would be stored in your implicit memory (see Box 13.3).

Working memory

Despite its initial popularity, the store-type model has gradually been replaced by the working memory model (Baddeley, 2007). Part of the reason for this was the growing experimental evidence that indicated the shortcomings of the store model. For example, it was found that simply rehearsing material (called maintenance rehearsal) did not necessarily increase a person’s ability to recall material; rather it seemed that recall was related to the level at which the material was being processed. Craik and Lockhart (in Baddeley, 2007) demonstrated that the more detailed the analysis when rehearsing material (called elaborative rehearsal), the more likely a person was to recall it.

For example, refer back to the list of words you generated for the sixth item in Box 13.1. If you take the list of words you wrote down and merely repeat them to yourself, you will probably recall fewer of them now than if you try to remember the sequence in which you first generated the words, or what you were thinking of at that time. Perhaps you could have noted which of the words sounded similar or had similar meanings to make remembering them easier. By analysing the words in a variety of ways, you are engaging in an elaborative form of rehearsal that should maximise later recall.

By the late 1970s, the concept of working memory had become popular (Quinlan & Dyson, 2008). Working memory can be thought of as replacing the short-term memory of the three-stage model. It was proposed that the working memory stores information temporarily and is limited in capacity (which is similar to the concept of the STM). However (unlike the concept of the STM), the working memory was also proposed as a cognitive workspace, a place where information could be manipulated and transformed (Baddeley, 2007). By calling it a ’working’ memory, Baddeley and Hitch were also emphasising its functional role rather than simply its storage capacity (Baddeley, 2007).

For example, read the fifth item in Box 13.1 once, and try and keep the list of digits in mind (no peeping at the page!) so that you can reverse its sequence. Write down your reversed list. Keep doing this exercise until you manage to perform it accurately. What you will then have managed is to both store and transform (in this case, reverse) information. Working memory refers to this active and dual process.

Elaborating on this, Baddeley and Hitch (in Baddeley, 2007) argued that working memory consists of three components:

•a central executive (where manipulations occur and which directs the overall memory activity)

•a phonological loop (which enables the temporary storage of words through rehearsal)

•a visuo-spatial sketchpad (which enables the temporary storage of mental images).


Figure 13.3 The multi-component model of working memory (Baddeley, 2000)

This model of working memory was essentially an elaboration of the STM component of the multi-store model, which retained the LTM concept from the multi-store model.

More recently, Baddeley (2000) added a fourth component to the working memory model, called the episodic buffer (see Figure 13.3). The episodic buffer is a temporary storage system that is able to integrate information from a variety of sources. In this way, the episodic buffer addresses the shortcomings of the earlier model as it provides an explanation of how visual, spatial and verbal information is linked, which the earlier model did not. Furthermore, the episodic buffer is much like episodic memory in that it holds episodes whereby information is combined across space and time. It also plays an important role in retrieving from, and feeding information to, the long-term episodic memory.

There are individual differences in working memory and these have an important impact in various areas. This is perhaps most significant in intellectual functioning (see Chapter 15). For example, working memory capacity influences children’s developing ability to solve maths problems (Raghubar, Barnes & Hecht, 2010). An interesting study linked working memory with people’s capacity to regulate their behaviour. Hofman, Gschwender, Friese, Wiers and Schmitt (2008) noted how much people differ in their impulsiveness, for example in their ability to refuse a tempting treat or to become annoyed quickly. Hofman et al. (2008) noted that automatic behaviour (e.g. as a result of the personality trait of angriness) was more powerful in people with a lower working memory capacity, whereas people with a higher working memory capacity were better able to ’manage’ such automatic behaviour. Thus, Hofman et al.’s (2008, p. 974) study found that ’self-regulatory goals, such as the goal to forego sweets or the goal to control one’s anger, guide behaviour more effectively in high WMC [working memory capacity] individuals’.

Long-term memory

Long-term memory is the library of all the information and experiences you have encountered in your life. There may have been times (when you were studying for matric, perhaps) that you felt you could not stuff a further piece of information into your memory. However, the capacity of long-term memory is effectively unlimited (Holt et al., 2012); it is also the part of memory that is most resistant to deterioration with age.

Recent cognitive theorists ’believe that there are … different types of information stored in long-term memory’ (Lutz & Huitt, 2003). These types are based on different structures which serve distinct purposes. (See Box 13.2 for a description of the different types of long-term memory.)


In general, memory research has focused on explicit memory (declarative memory), in particular on visual memory and auditory memory. These abilities involve a conscious process. However, recently there has been more research on those memories that we are less aware of having (Holt et al., 2012). These are grouped under the term ’implicit memory’ (or ’procedural memory’).

The eighth item in Box 13.1 draws on implicit memory. You probably think of complex movements, such as kicking a ball, swinging a golf club or even shuffling a deck of cards, as a skill that you have to practise to perfect. But if you consider that this involves a process of acquisition, rehearsal, storage and recall, you will realise that skills (and habits for that matter) are all forms of memory.

Research has shown that implicit memories are usually acquired by doing the relevant activity and that they are not easy to forget (Shuttleworth-Jordan, 1997). For example, even though you might not have ridden a bicycle for years, you would probably be able to cycle without much trouble if you were asked to do so today. A fascinating example of implicit memory comes from over a century ago. Edward Claparède (1911, in Holt et al. 2012) pricked the hand of an amnesia patient during a handshake. Although the patient was unable to recall the pinprick, her implicit memory of it was demonstrated when she withdrew her hand when Claparède offered to shake her hand again.

Several authors (Holt et al., 2012; Quinlan & Dyson, 2008) raise a question about the distinction between shortterm and long-term memory systems. A fascinating demonstration of this distinction comes from the study of primacy and recency effects, which are discussed in the next section.

The primacy and recency effects

A common test used to assess memory in people who have sustained brain damage is the Rey Auditory Verbal Learning Test (Lezak et al., 2012). In this test a list of 15 words is repeatedly read to a person who then, after each reading, has to try and recall as many of the words as possible, a process known as free recall. Some interesting things are usually noted when considering which words a person tends to recall. Usually the words that are read out first and last tend to be recalled more often than the words in the middle of the list. These phenomena have been referred to as the primacy effect (the tendency to recall words heard first) and the recency effect (the tendency to recall words heard last) (Quinlan & Dyson, 2008). How do we explain these effects?

Research has shown that people are limited in terms of the number of discrete bits of information they can hold in their awareness at any one time. This is sometimes referred to as a person’s immediate memory span or simple span (Groome, 1999). A test used to assess this is the Digit Span Forward test of the Wechsler Memory Scale (Martin et al., 2006). An approximate example of an item from this test would be item five in Box 13.1 — the list of numbers. A general finding is that people have a span for between five to nine bits of information, with seven being a common average (Miller in Groome, 1999). Fifteen items, then, would probably be beyond the immediate-memory span of most people.

How can these effects be explained? First, according to the three-stage model, as we hear the first words on the list, we can rehearse them so that they pass into LTM (Holt et al., 2012). This explains the primacy effect (the early words on the list have been repeated several times and have been transferred to LTM). However, as the list goes on, there are too many words to hold and repeat in working memory or STM. For the recency effect, the words towards the end of the list are still in the working memory. Thus, by utilising a combination of storage devices, a person can recall more than seven items on the list. However, the words in the middle of the list tend to fall between these two systems and are forgotten. The recency effect can be eliminated by presenting a distractor task (e.g. asking the person to count from 1 to 10 before recalling the words).


While learning may be defined as the storage of material in the LTM, forgetting involves the loss of information after it was stored in the LTM.

Hermann Ebbinghaus (1850—1909) was one of the first researchers known to have scientifically studied memory (Groome, 1999; Holt et al., 2012; Shuttleworth-Jordan, 1997). He was the first to observe and graphically plot the forgetting curve, a typical pattern of forgetting where some material that has just been learned is rapidly forgotten at first, and the balance is then forgotten at a more gradual pace afterwards (Groome, 1999).


Figure 13.4 The Ebbinghaus forgetting curve

Two explanations for this pattern were considered: spontaneous decay, where material is lost due to not being used over time, and interference, where some other input disrupts these memories (Holt et al., 2012). The interference explanation has proved more popular, primarily owing to the argument that time alone is an inadequate explanation of forgetting, and that it is the things that happen across time that are responsible for this process (Holt et al., 2012). Two forms of interference have been distinguished:

Proactive interference, which is where previously learned material interferes with the learning of new material (Holt et al., 2012). For example, at a party you are introduced to a Hungarian man with an unusual name. After some effort, you manage to recall the name at will. A while later you are introduced to his wife, who has an equally difficult name. You find that it is an immense struggle to memorise the second name because the first name seems to interfere. Prior learning has impeded your current rate of learning.

Retroactive interference, which is where new material disrupts older information (Holt et al., 2012). For example, you are introduced to two people at a party, the one early in the evening and the other an hour later. The next day you find that whenever you try to recall the name of the first person, the name of the second keeps coming to mind.


•Owing to shortcomings of the store model, it has gradually been replaced by the working memory model. Research found that elaborative rehearsal was more effective than maintenance rehearsal, thus suggesting that active processing of information is needed for better remembering.

•Working memory can be thought of as replacing the shortterm memory of the three-stage model.

•Working memory stores information temporarily and is limited in capacity (like STM); however, working memory was also proposed as a cognitive workspace where active processing of information occurred.

•Baddeley and Hitch argued that working memory consists of three components: a central executive, a phonological loop and a visuo-spatial sketchpad. A fourth component, the episodic buffer, was added later. The working memory model retained the LTM concept from the multi-store model.

•To assess memory, researchers commonly read lists of 15 words to people. In free recall, the person is asked to say which words they recall. People tend to remember the words they hear first (primacy effect) and last (recency effect).

•People’s immediate memory span extends to five to nine pieces of information (average of seven). The primacy effect is either due to material being temporarily rehearsed in working memory, or being stored in LTM and later recalled; the recency effect is thought to be a function of the immediate-memory span in working memory.

•Forgetting involves the loss of information after it has been stored in the LTM. This may happen through spontaneous decay or through interference. There are two forms of interference: proactive (previously learned material interferes with the learning of new material) and retroactive (new material disrupts older information).

The expansion of understandings of memory

In this section we will be discussing some of the responses to the basic IP model.

Meaning and memory

Without looking back, try and recall the nine digits that you learned from Box 13.1. Chances are that, if you used rote (parrot) learning, you will be unable to do so. Now look back at the numbers and use the following sentence, ’World War II started in 1939 and ended in 1945’ to help you to memorise the sequence. Chances are that you will still remember the numbers (219391945) by the end of the chapter. This is impressive since, at nine numbers, this is at the upper limit of the immediate memory span. How is this possible?

Two things have happened here. First, the information has been chunked. Chunking refers to combining individual items into a larger unit of memory, in this case, dates. In addition, the digits have been made meaningful; they have been linked to other information that enables the sequence to be retained in a more enduring form (Groome, 1999). It is difficult to retain these nine numbers when they are meaningless, but when linked to historical facts, recalling these numbers becomes less demanding. Thus, in understanding memory, we need to understand the role of meaning and past learning.

The work of Frederic Bartlett (1886—1979) becomes significant here, since he argued that our long-term memory is organised according to meaning frameworks, known as schemas (Shuttleworth-Jordan, 1997) (see Chapter 12). Our past experiences (past learning) act as frameworks that structure the learning of new information (Groome, 1999).

Let us use the 2010 Soccer World Cup as an example. Imagine you watched all the South Africa matches with two friends, one who knew little about soccer and the other who had an in-depth knowledge of the game’s rules, strategies and players. If you discussed the event with these two friends now, you would probably find that the second friend would be able to recall much more about each match than your less-informed friend. According to Bartlett’s theory, the reason for this is that your friend who is an avid fan has a more detailed and developed schema that assists him in encoding and retaining cricket information.


Source: Kolb and Whishaw (1996)

We have all met or heard of someone who has an exceptional ability to remember. Perhaps you yourself are quite proud of your capacity to recall details. Such people are often said to have photographic memories; that is, they can recollect often very difficult material with incredible accuracy. The Russian neuropsychologist, Luria, studied an exceptional example of such a person, S. S. was discovered when it was found that he, originally working as a newspaper reporter, never kept notes of briefings since he recalled everything that was said verbatim. He had a phenomenal capacity to remember, which Luria detailed in his book The mind of the mnemonist. A mnemonist is a person who exhibits their extraordinary memory abilities to audiences.

For example, S. could study, for only two to three minutes, a list of more than 40 numbers arranged in four columns, and then recall these numbers. He could recall them not only by column and row, but also diagonally, in reverse, and as sums. Not only this, but S. was able to recall the list accurately more than 16 years later! He used three processes to remember material: visualising the original stimuli, remembering them through numerous sensory modalities (as sounds, shapes and colours, or even as odours and tastes), and associating the new material with a standard set of older material. As far as could be seen, S. had no limit to his ability to encode new material and, furthermore, could not forget. In fact he devised several strategies to forget, all of which were unsuccessful.

However, this incredible capacity did seem to come at a price: Luria described how S. was quite dull and superficial, and unable to appreciate metaphors. He would interpret everything literally and was thus unable to appreciate poetry, for example.

The accuracy of memory

The schema concept has profound consequences for our understanding of memory. If what we remember depends on our previous learning, then the type of detail that each person recalls will vary, since no two people share the same learning history. The memories you recall during discussions or while quietly reminiscing are thus constructed; they are the product of a meeting of your schemas with the event you are remembering.

Therefore, to think of memory as a video recording of events in your life, which you then replay in your mind’s eye when remembering, is inaccurate. Instead, remembering is a reconstructive exercise using information retained within the frameworks of relevant schemas (Neisser, 1984). This means that memories are not accurate depictions of events, and they are prone to distortions.

One example of how inaccurate human memory can be comes from eye-witness testimony. As Eysenck and Keane (2010) suggest, many innocent people have been imprisoned on the basis of inaccurate testimony from witnesses to crimes. One of the factors that impact on this is confirmation bias — if you believe an immigrant is more likely to commit criminal actions, you are more likely to perceive a perpetrator to be an immigrant. Memory can also be distorted by exposure to violence and the accompanying anxiety. In addition, if the perpetrator has a weapon, a victim is more likely to focus on the weapon than the details of the perpetrator (Eysenck & Keane, 2010). Elizabeth Loftus and colleagues have done a great deal of fascinating research in this area, highlighting the impact of the way witnesses are questioned after an event. For example, witnesses were asked to estimate a car’s speed when it ’smashed’ into another car, or when it ’hit’ another car. When the first wording was used, they estimated the car’s speed to be about 11 kph faster was used (Loftus & Palmer, 1974, in Eysenck & Keane, 2010).

The context of remembering

The idea that memories are inherently inaccurate or constructed has led to a significant shift in memory research. Some researchers have retained a focus on the inaccuracy of our recollections and have tried to identify factors that maximise the accuracy of schema-based memories. Most of this research has been experimental and conducted in a laboratory. Others have argued that this is too limited and research needs to move into everyday life. This is a departure from the basic IP model with its emphasis on the internal processes of memory; the research net has now been thrown more widely to include the haphazardness of daily existence, which is the very thing that experimental psychologists tried to exclude by conducting research in laboratories.

This shift in focus in memory research has been called the ecological approach and is closely associated with the work of Ulric Neisser (Neisser, 1982). Neisser argued that rather than being concerned with the inaccuracy of remembering, we should be intrigued by its functionality, i.e. how it is accurate enough to allow us to manage our daily lives successfully. For example, Neisser refers to gist memory, the ability to recall the main points or central themes of an event or story (Neisser, 1982), which is a skill often called on in daily life. (The ninth item in Box 13.1 calls on this ability.) Neisser argues for a shift away from the computer analogy to a focus on the person in context. Memory thus becomes a social rather than an exclusively mental process.

However, the significance of the role of context in remembering is not something new and unique to the ecological approach. We all know that some contexts will evoke strong recollections for us (Schwabe, Böhringer & Wolfe, 2009). Let us work with the bedroom exercise (the fourth item from Box 13.1) to demonstrate this. Imagining your bedroom may result in your recalling various events that took place there; a discussion with your mom the previous day, a song you listened to a week before, or even a fight with your brother several years before — and if you go and stand in your bedroom, many more memories may come flooding back.

Research has shown that remembering is context dependent. An example of this is a study by Greenspoon and Reynert (in Groome, 1999), who found that children who were asked to recall what they had learned in the same room in which they had originally learned it tended to recall more information than children who had to recall the same information in a different room. One explanation for this is that there are various features in the learning context that serve as triggers for remembering. In this experiment, such triggers would have been absent in the room where learning had not taken place. Schwabe et al. (2009) took this research one step further and demonstrated how stress can disrupt context-dependent memory. In this study, adult participants were exposed to stress before a learning task in a vanilla-scented room. Compared to the control group, whose memory was enhanced by the vanilla scent, the group which was exposed to stress showed no memory enhancement. In the previous section, we also saw how emotion can disrupt memory in eye-witness situations.

Society and culture as context

It is important to realise that context refers to more than our physical surroundings but extends to the sociocultural background of the person doing the remembering. Mistry and Rogoff (1994) argue that the inaccuracy and distortion that is evident in people’s remembering may be better understood as a product of their context than as an indication of the functioning of some internal process. They argue that people learn particular remembering skills within their specific cultural context. For example, in formal Western schooling we are taught strategies for remembering unrelated bits of information (as in the fifth item in Box 13.1). These strategies may be absent in other contexts where such skills are not in demand.

This idea places the IP approach in an interesting position. Since it has been very concerned with the remembering of discrete, meaningless bits of information, the IP approach thus locates itself within the concerns of Western culture. It then becomes possible to ask: ’To what extent are the findings of this approach relevant to those in positions outside of this dominant culture?’

Let us consider the following: Frederic Bartlett found that Swazi herdsmen were very good at remembering details of the cattle under their care, but did less well at remembering a 25-word message (Mistry & Rogoff, 1994). Using the above idea, it can be argued that the herdsmen had well-developed skills for remembering cattle, which are very significant animals in the Swazi culture, but were less skilled in carrying messages, which would probably be more valued in a Westernised culture.


Figure 13.5 Cultural context plays a role in determining what type of memory skills we develop

Another example from Mistry and Rogoff (1994) refers to work done with Mayan children who were asked to remember a culturally relevant story and then retell it to an adult. The researchers found that the Mayan children did far worse than a group of American children. However, rather than assuming that some cultures have poorer memories, the cultural context should be taken into consideration. Outspokenness is a skill valued in middle-class US culture (Kitayama, 2000; Markus & Kitayama, 1991), but speaking freely to an adult is considered inappropriate for Mayan children, since one should not claim greater knowledge than an adult. It is thus not surprising to note a poorer performance among such children.

Wang and Brockmeier (2002) used this approach in studying autobiographical memory. This is the memory we have of our own lives. Wang and Brockmeier (2002) note that, in Western contexts, it is assumed that such memory relates to our selves or our identity. However, these authors consider autobiographical memory to emerge from dialogues between a person, his/her immediate social environment (family, peers, etc.) and his/her larger cultural context. For Wang and Brockmeier (2002, p. 47), therefore, ’autobiographical remembering is a cultural practice’.

Living in a world of action: a critical approach to memory research

Although Neisser is interested in studying memory in its natural context, his ecological approach still shares the IP concern for determining the accuracy of people’s recollections. However, Edwards and Potter (1995) do not, and they have criticised aspects of Neisser’s ecological approach. They agree with Neisser that laboratory studies provide limited insight into the process of remembering because such research is so removed from the context of the everyday world. Where they differ from Neisser is that his, and all previous memory research, is built on the assumption that an accurate and indisputable record of the original events exists, and can be used to judge the accuracy of a person’s recollections. But, say Edwards and Potter (1995, p. 32), ’there can be no neutral, interpretation-free record against which to check claims’. Consider again the example of the student who was involved in a car accident with the Dean of Humanities (see Box 13.5), which demonstrates how the memory of an event varies according to the context: to whom, where and when the story is told.


A student is involved in a car accident with the Dean of Humanities. The following stories are given by this student in different contexts.

Student to father: I was driving behind the dean when he suddenly hit the brakes. I couldn’t stop in time and ran into the back of him. I wasn’t driving up his rear but it was just so sudden! I just couldn’t stop quickly enough.

Student to friends: I was really tired after working through the night to complete the psych essay. I didn’t even know it was the dean in front of me. If I had, I would have stayed a mile away. Next thing all I see are red lights, and bang into the back of him! I shat myself! There I am, moeg [tired], just trying to get home and then boom! It really made my day.

Student to police: I was driving in my car behind the other car. We were both driving down Church Street towards the Magistrate’s Court. The other car came to a sudden stop. My car collided with the back of it.

Consider, is there one final true version of what happened?


Figure 13.6 A story told to friends may be quite different from the story told to a policeman or a parent because no version of the same event is ever separate from context and interpretation

Edwards and Potter (1995) state that each time a story is told the speaker aims at achieving different effects. This does not mean that the student from Box 13.5 is lying (the same facts may be reported each time), or that the student is conscious of any variations. What Edwards and Potter (1995) would say is that the student is creating each version to meet the demands of each situation.

Since we are always recollecting in a context, we can never tell the one final true version of what happened.

However, Edwards and Potter (1995) do not condemn Neisser’s work. They see his research as making a valuable contribution, but they argue for the importance of studying how people construct their versions of events and how they manage to achieve particular effects through such versions.


Source: Woollett, Spiers and Maguire (2009)

Woollett et al. (2009) investigated people with average IQs but with extraordinary memory talent or expertise — London taxi drivers. These drivers have to learn the layout of London, including 25 000 streets, as well as the locations of many places of interest. Woollett et al. (2009) used neuropsychological assessment and functional MRI (fMRI) scans to investigate whether adults could achieve high levels of expertise. Navigating around streets depends on the hippocampus and the study showed that taxi drivers had larger volumes of grey matter in their posterior hippocampi compared to other drivers. In addition, this volume was greater in those who had been taxi drivers for longer. A study on a driver with bilateral hippocampus damage due to encephalitis showed that he had been able to adapt by using main roads, but that when he had to move away from these, he became lost. Woollett et al. (2009) also investigated how the taxi drivers acquired the great volume of information they needed to have to do their jobs. They found that the drivers made extensive use of mnemonics, much as did other ’memory champions’. Finally, Woollet et al. (2009) investigated whether this highly developed expertise came with some cognitive costs. They found that the taxi drivers had deficiencies in acquiring and retaining certain types of new information. In addition, their anterior hippocampi were smaller than average. It seems that exceptional learned expertise may come with both cognitive and brain structure costs.


•Memory can be improved through techniques like chunking and through the information being made meaningful. The latter depends on our past learning and the schemas (frameworks) that have been established. Our past experiences act as frameworks that structure the learning of new information.

•If what we remember depends on our individual schemas, then any two people will remember things differently. Memory is not like a video recording; it is a reconstructive exercise using relevant schemas. Therefore, memory is prone to distortion.

•This notion of memory as inherently inaccurate or constructed has resulted in a significant shift in memory research. Led by Neisser, this ecological approach is interested in aspects like gist memory. This is the ability to recall the main themes of an event, and helps us manage daily life. The focus of this theory is on the person in context.

•Research has long shown that remembering is context dependent. This may relate to the presence of certain triggers for remembering which are available in the context during the recall process.

•Contexts relevant to remembering include the person’s sociocultural context. Different sociocultural contexts facilitate different kinds of memory skills. This suggests that the IP approach may not be relevant to those outside of dominant Western culture.

•Both the IP approach and Neisser’s approach are concerned with establishing the accuracy of people’s memories. However, Edwards and Potter argue that it is impossible to determine the accuracy of a person’s recollections. This is because no accurate and indisputable record of the original events exists.


In this chapter we have traced the development of psychology’s investigation of our ability to remember. In this process you have been introduced to a large number of terms and ideas that has probably shifted the understanding of memory that you articulated at the beginning of this chapter. Our journey started with the information-processing approach, with its strong internal focus and emphasis on computer terms. Over a number of steps we then saw how the understanding of memory has shifted from that of a passive and internal store to a more dynamic and skilled phenomenon that is intimately tied up with both meaning and context. Finally, we completed our journey by showing how in recollecting, we can never arrive at a final true version of an event. Thus, the concept of memory lies distributed among these understandings. Memory is a field of study that is still as alive with debate and investigation as it was when psychology first became intrigued by it more than a century ago.


Imageauditory memory: the ability to acquire and recall what has been heard

Imagecentral executive: a component of working memory where sensory and recollected input is manipulated

Imagechunking: combining individual items into a larger unit of memory

Imagecue: a trigger for a person to remember a specific piece of information

Imageecological approach: the study of memory as something that a person does in a social or everyday context

Imageelaborative rehearsal: the detailed analysis of information when a person is trying to remember it

Imageepisodic buffer: the concept of a temporary storage system that is able to integrate information from a variety of sources

Imageepisodic memory: a type of explicit memory that stores personal experiences that have happened at a particular time and place in the past

Imageexplicit memory (declarative memory): the conscious recollection of facts or experiences that have been encountered in the past

Imageforgetting: the loss of information after it has been stored in the LTM

Imagefree recall: a process during which a list of words are repeatedly read to a person who, after each reading, has to try to recall as many words as possible without the assistance of external cues

Imagegist memory: a type of explicit memory where the main points or salient features of an event or story are recalled

Imageimmediate memory span: the number of discrete bits of information that a person can hold in awareness at any one time

Imageimplicit memory (procedural memory): unconscious recollections that exert an influence on current behaviour

Imageinformation processing (IP) approach: an approach to memory where memory is thought of as an internal cognitive process consisting of distinct and interconnected stages

Imageinput stage: the first stage of the process of remembering, according to the IP approach

Imageinterference: the concept that material is lost from the LTM owing to disruption of it by other inputs into the LTM

Imagelong-term memory (LTM): a component of Atkinson and Shiffrin’s model of memory that refers to information of which we are not currently conscious but which is being kept in storage and can be recalled at a later time

Imagemaintenance rehearsal: simply going over material with the intention to memorise it

Imagememory: the ability to process, store, retain and recall information

Imagemnemonist: a person who exhibits his/her extraordinary memory abilities to audiences

Imagemulti-store model of memory: Atkinson and Shiffrin’s (1968) model of memory, which is composed of the sensory register, the short-term memory and the long-term memory

Imageoutput stage: the third stage of the process of remembering, according to the IP approach

Imagephonological loop: a component of working memory that enables the temporary storage of verbal material

Imageprimacy effect: during free recall, the tendency to recall words that were heard first

Imageproactive interference: a process whereby previously learned material interferes with the learning of new material

Imagerecency effect: during free recall, the tendency to recall words heard last

Imageretroactive interference: a process whereby information is lost from the LTM because new material disrupts older information

ImageRey Auditory Verbal Learning Test: a common test used to assess verbal memory in people who have sustained brain damage

Imageschemas: meaning frameworks into which the LTM is organised

Imagesemantic memory: a type of explicit memory that stores facts, or general information encountered in the past

Imagesensory register: a component of Atkinson and Shiffrin’s model of memory that receives the initial sensory input from the environment before recognising this

Imageshort-term memory (STM): a component of Atkinson and Shiffrin’s model of memory that refers to information that is currently in our awareness

Imagespontaneous decay: the concept that material is lost from the LTM owing to it not being used over time

Imagestorage stage: the second stage in the process of remembering, according to the IP approach

Imagetwo-store model of memory: an early IP model of memory, made up of the STM and the LTM

Imagevisual memory: the ability to acquire and recall what has been seen

Imagevisuo-spatial sketchpad: a component of working memory that enables the temporary storage of images

Imageworking memory: a limited-capacity memory store that temporarily holds information and manipulates and transforms it


Multiple choice questions

1.According to the information-processing (IP) approach, memory consists of three aspects. Which one of the following is not one of those aspects?





2.Which one of the following statements is false?

a)The sensory register is part of Atkinson and Shiffrin’s store model of memory.

b)The sensory register receives initial acoustic sensory input.

c)The sensory store recognises a stimulus and then passes it on to the short-term memory.

d)The sensory store receives input from all sensory modalities.

3.Working memory refers to:

a)the memory process that becomes possible once energy flow has been initiated through brain circuits

b)a replacement of the passive store model of memory, where memory is understood as a more dynamic process

c)that part of the memory store that remains intact after brain damage

d)a model understood as consisting of three basic components: the sensory register, the short-term memory and the long-term memory.

4.At a party, you are introduced to someone who looks a lot like Oprah Winfrey. Later, when trying to recall this person’s name, all you can recall is Oprah’s name. This experience is referred to as:

a)retroactive interference

b)proactive interference

c)schema interruption

d)rapid forgetting.

5.The more detailed and developed a schema is:

a)the greater the chance of proactive interference

b)the easier the process of encoding and retaining information related to that schema

c)the more difficult and slower the process of encoding and retaining information related to that schema

d)the more you have a plan that takes into consideration all possible contingencies.

6. According to Neisser (1984):

a)memory is best thought of as an ongoing record of events similar to a videotape recording

b)memory can best be understood by studying it within natural contexts

c)memory encoding is a highly accurate process where distortions are always indications of brain damage

d)memory encoding is a highly accurate process where distortions are always indications of poor education.

7.Some argue that many memory assessment tests are:

a)based on Western conceptualisations of memory

b)prejudiced against people from non-Western cultural backgrounds

c)biased towards particular types of memory skills

d)all of the above are correct.

8.Edwards and Potter (1995) argue that:

a)Neisser makes an important contribution to improving the accuracy of laboratory-based memory research.

b)Neisser’s ecological approach to memory is removed from the context of the real world.

c)Although possible, it is very difficult to attain a neutral and interpretation-free account of an event against which eye-witness accounts can be checked.

d)A memory cannot be separated from the social context in which it occurs.

9.Why is it that a story told to friends may be quite different when told to parents, or when told to a policeman?

a)People are more truthful when they tell a story to their friends compared to when they describe the same event to authority figures.

b)People create each version of the story to meet the demands of each situation.

c)Neither a nor b is correct.

d)Both a and b are correct.

10.Retroactive interference refers to the phenomenon where:

a)new information disrupts older information

b)previously learned information is forgotten

c)previously learned information interferes with the learning of new material

d)both a and c are correct.

Short-answer questions

1.In what ways does working memory differ from shortterm memory?

2.If you were asked to remember the following series of numbers: 200419942010, what schemas would you use to remember them?