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- Gemma L Sobah
‘Memory is a constructive and active process’
To be able to successfully evaluate this claim, it is important that some research is done. A lot of relevant research supports this claim but what information we process and store is actually being actively processes by our conscious and how much of this is being stored in a more automatic, passive manner? Before we can delve any further into memory, we need to find a way to break it down into what memory consists of. This essay will look at the research conducted on memory and evaluate to what extent the memory is a constructive and active system. As we know already, memory is a part of our everyday lives. It enables us to carry out daily tasks and skills from knowledge and gives us access to information we may need at a later date, but has been stored in our memory for the mean time. It is an essential part of our lives, and this makes it important for psychologists to be able to understand how it works and its functions. Over time research has been done that breaks memory down into three component processors.
Putting information into memory
Retaining information into memory
Getting information back out of memory
(Brace et al, 2007)
Encoding is putting information into code and then inserting it into our memory to then be stored.
Storage is when information is retained and is kept in the form or visual, physical or other depictions.
Retrieval is when we try and retrieve information out of our memory, into our conscious mind.
The memory is not only broken down into processes but also has subsystems that work parallel to and include sensory memory, short-term memory and long-term memory. William James (cited in Brace et al, 2007) was one of the first psychologists to make this connect and present memory as having these three subsystems. His theory also included the idea that the brain used a primary memory permitting conscious mental activity and a secondary memory responsible for storing knowledge. (Brace and Roth, 2007, p.g 115) This alone supports the claim that memory is a constructive and active process, for it not only receives stores and retrieves information, but it also sorts the information we receive into sections. If the brain was a passive process, we could believe that all information processed would be generically stored. It would take a conscious and active memory to be able to decide which information will be logged as short term, and which should be logged as long term. We will look at this more later.
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Memory is an ability that we as humans and also animals to some extent, depend upon to be able to recall different events, relate to experiences, and connect with people. It is a very important system that allows the brain to acknowledge and receive information from our surroundings and from our own bodies, (also known as stimuli), store it, (in either short or long term memory, depending on the information), and then allow it to be accessed in future occasions (known as retrieval). It allows us to continually live one day after the next, without having to relearn everything, giving us the ability to learn from our past actions, relive experiences in different times of our life’s and use all the information we have stored, to carry on and grow. If you think about the first time you read a book or tried roller-skates; those are memories formed, either short or long or term. If we have no memory from the past, you would never learn; thus unable to process and understand. Without memory we would constantly be faced with new and unfamiliar things. This alone and cause us distress. We only have to look at someone with dementia to understand how fragile and vulnerable we would be without the capacity to remember, our everyday lives and actions would be affected and so would our survival. More and more research is being uncovered that suggests that the brain works as a whole, integrating with all areas of its self and aren’t small separate sections doing independent work. When processing a new memory the brain sends information to the Papez circuit which involves many parts of the brain. Research on the brain shows that forming a memory causes physical changes to the organisation of neurons and maybe even the neurons in a process called brain plasticity. (Brace et al. 2007, p.g 146) Ever since William James (1890) first revealed his theories on memory, a substantial body of research has followed. Many other psychologists have shared approaches that conceptualize memory as a flow of information through a sequence of sub-systems. It is believed information is recoded as and when it is carried from one sub-system to the next.
Let’s look at the short term memory. Some research suggests that this form of memory is just a temporary store. But Baddeley and Hitch (1974) (as cited in Brace et al, 2007, p.g 117) allows us to understand it better. They believe that to be able to really understand the functions of short term memory we have to first understand what we use it for. They suggest it has several functions. Brace, 2007 puts it like this:
One key function is to concentrate on processing new inputs, and rehearse and code them for transfer to long term memory. Another function is to retrieve information relevant stored knowledge to assist in making sense of these inputs………..STM is an active store holding information that we are consciously thinking about- it is attention-limited ‘work-bench’ system of memory.
(Brace et al, 2007 page p.g 117)
Here memory is described as active, and the reason for this is simple. Memory is constantly working or organise its information for the purpose of our life. We are constantly learning and developing, and our memory processes are constantly sorting through all the information we receive, to make sure the everyday things we need to remember, such as how to tie our shoes are stored in the right place, the information we only need temporary, such as the number we are typed into our phone, can be stored for the appropriate length of time, then discarded to utilise the space. We interact with many things in our everyday life’s and our brain are aware of that, and is constantly on standby to help us live, so to speak. Another reason we can say memory is active and not passive is for the simple fact that we are able to consciously control what we want to retrieve from our memories and what information we would rather no remember, at that present time. For example, a young has lost her house keys, and in order to help her find them, she decides to try and remember when she last seen them, this is her consciously selecting memories from a specific time. She hasn’t decided to try and remember the colour of the keys, or when she very first came to own the keys, she has consciously tried to recall a specific moment in her life when she had the keys. This is her memory actively working to select the relevant memory and disregard any memory that is not currently needed that may be related to the keys. If our memory were passive, maybe it would automatically recall every memory she has had with the keys, which wouldn’t help the woman find the keys, it would just create confusion and possible frustration. Memory might for this reason be seen as a perceptually active process of the brain that derives from three key components.
As we can see memory isn’t a simple matter. It is very complex and there are still many aspects of it under research and not yet understood, and because memory cannot be directly monitored, psychologists have found ways to analyse it enough to be able to have some understanding of how our memory works and why. Our memory serves a crucial purpose and without it, we cannot evolve, and learn and although it does more good than harm, it can from time to time cause us distress and many other things. Our memories are key to making us who we are and there are times that some people’s bad memories impact their lives greatly. Nevertheless, our memory is active, and we can us this to our advantage. We can change our memories, we can implant some memories deeper than others, and we have found ways to hide or keep some memories dormant. We can actively strengthen and challenge our memories daily and find ways to get the most out of the memory process, because without memory, we cannot survive.
Brace, N., Ilona, R. (2007) ‘Memory: structures, processes and skills’ in Miell, D., Phoenix, A., and Thomas, K. (eds) Mapping Psychology, Milton Keynes, The Open University.
Psychology18th March 2014
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