Meaningful thought systems
“Happiness is nothing more than good health and a bad memory”
Albert Schweitzer (1875–1965)
Psychologists are in some agreement that there are three different kinds of memory: sensory, short-term, and long-term. The theorists of today agree that before any experience can be stored in your memory, it must be coded into one or another kind of information. The process of coding and storing experiences is referred to as information processing.
Sensory memory, the simplest of the three, is of brief duration, has a relatively large capacity, and processes and encodes information in a direct, non-distorted manner. The visual afterimage is an ideal example of a sensory memory store. Sensory memory, it is clear from all this, accounts for very little of what people mean by the term “memory”.
Short-term memory, the system next in the line of complexity, lasts for only a minute or so. Looking up a telephone number, closing the book, and then dialing the number is an example of short-term memory at work. It is believed that all memories, except sensory memories, start as short-term memories. These short-term memories are forever lost within a minute or so unless they are reprocessed into long-term memories. This must occur almost immediately and can be done by internal rehearsing or some other form of consolidation means the end of that memory.
We can improve our short-term memory by organizing material into smaller, more manageable groups. One name for this is chunking. Chunking requires that the material be coded appropriately, before being stored. Unlike sensory memory, coding in short-term memory need not faithfully reflect the stimulus material. There is some evidence that words and letters, whether spoken or written, tend to be coded according to sound rather than appearance.
Long-term memory, which stores massive amounts of material for several minutes or many years, must have an efficient coding system. We do not fully understand this system, but much is known about it. For example, words are coded by clustering. This is a way of organizing material into meaningful groups and thereby making it more manageable. Other material is also organized by clustering. New facts or experiences attach themselves to appropriate groups already in memory storage, which means that grouping and regrouping, organizing and reorganizing are constantly going on.
You can improve your memory by imposing your own organization on the material you want to remember, instead of leaving the organizational process to chance association. By thinking over your experiences and ideas, weaving them into systematic relations with each other, you can consolidate them into long-lasting memories.
Long-term memories are forgotten in many ways, depending in part on the conditions under which the memories were first processed. One theory holds that experiences are forgotten because the memories are interfered with by what happens after the material is learned, as well as by what happened beforehand. In the first case, the interference is called retroactive inhibition; in the second, it is proactive inhibition.
Freud saw certain kinds of forgetting as being motivated by the forgetter’s need to avoid unbearably painful memories. Though this kind of forgetting, repression, is purposeful in that sense, the forgetter does not repress consciously. Repression is automatic and unconscious.
Laboratory experiments on Freudian forgetting theory are few and not very convincing, but it may well be that because of its very nature, repression does not lend itself to laboratory analysis.
Bartlett was the first to suggest that forgetting is a very active and, in fact, creative process. We can see how Bartlett approached the problem of memory by describing one of his major experiments. He asked his students, British university students, to read to themselves a 300-word North American Indian folk tale and then to read it again. Fifteen minutes later and at various intervals after that, he tested his students for literal recall. These are some of the things he found:
1. The general form of the students’ first recall was preserved throughout their future retelling of the tale.
2. Elements of the original story (phrases or words) were changed so as to make sense to them. The phrase “hunting seals” was remembered as “fishing”; the more familiar “boat” replaced the original “canoe”.
3. Various new details were invented by the subjects which made the story hang together better and also made it fit in better with British speech patterns, British customs, and British values.
The final story the students remembered was often quite different from the original one. The motive for “creative forgetting” here is intellectual, because the purpose of Bartlett’s students in forgetting “creatively” was to make the material more meaningful.
The three main memory systems differ in the time they can span, in how much they can carry, in their type of coding, and in their forgetting mechanisms.
Sensory memory lasts but a fraction of a second. It can handle as much as the sense organ can register. It depends on a fairly direct coding of the image, which, after its fleeting instant, decays.
Short-term memory lasts less than a minute or so and can encompass very few items. Its coding is indirect, a good deal of it apparently based on sound, and involves a significant amount of organization. It, too, simply decays or fades away.
Long-term memory can last for several minutes or many years and its capacity is almost unlimited. It typically makes use of very complex coding which involves clustering, meaningful thought systems, and so forth. For all the organization in our vast memory store, our memories are nonetheless lost through interference or changed through creative forgetting.
Transcribe the following words. Mind the stress:
4. chunking - is a memory strategy that involves taking individual units of information and grouping them into larger units
5. clustering - involves organizing information in memory into related groups; memory is clustered into groupings during recall from long-term memory
6. retroactive inhibition - the tendency for the retention of learned material or skills to be impaired by subsequent learning, esp. by learning of a similar kind
7. proactive inhibition - the tendency for earlier memories to interfere with the retrieval of material learned later
8. decay - is a type of forgetting that occurs when memories fade over time
meaningful thought systems