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Learning and memory can be studied from a variety of vantage points.

First, memory is a critical psychological function. You can have a behaving organism which doesn't have a memory -- which operates purely on reflex, taxis, and instinct to respond to physical stimuli that are present in the current environment.  But such an organism is severely limited. 

Memory takes us beyond the present, and permits us to transcend the here-and-now.  Without memory, intelligent behavior -- behavior which responds flexibly to changes in the situation --  just isn't possible, because memory provides the cognitive basis for other cognitive functions.

In particular, memory affords the possibility of learning, defined traditionally as relatively permanent changes in behavior that occur as a result of experience -- because memory is what makes these changes permanent. Without memory, some capacity to store the changes in knowledge that underlie the changes in behavior, learning just isn't possible.

Memory is also the cognitive basis of perception.  In Bruner's famous aphorism, perception requires that the perceiver go "beyond the information given" by the proximal stimulus. 

 Memory provides the basis for thought and language.
Finally, memory provides the basis for some emotions and motives.

Memory as Cognitive Faculty

These considerations show us what kind of memory an intelligent organism has to have.  Memory must be capable of storing mental representations of knowledge acquired through experience.

All behaving organisms must have this sort of memory, and the more of it they have, the more intelligent their behavior will be.  This is because memory permits them to alter their behavior in response to changing circumstances, and to manipulate symbols instead of responding to stimuli.

But human behavior stores more than generic knowledge of symbols and rules.  It also stores mental representations of particular experiences, or episodic memory. 

Like semantic memory, episodic memory is a component of declarative memory, and can be represented by sentence-like propositions.

So, viewed as a mental faculty, we now have the architecture of memory.

For the most part, the scientific study of learning involves the acquisition of abstract knowledge -- how we learn things in general: the meanings of words, the attributes of concepts, and cognitive skills.  This work began with Pavlov and Thorndike, and links human learning with animal learning.

For the most part, the scientific study of memory involves the acquisition of episodic memory -- how we construct and maintain an autobiographical narrative, and how we consciously recollect our own, unique, personal experiences.  This work began with Ebbinghaus, and has yielded a small but comprehensive set of principles governing encoding, storage, and retrieval which effectively summarize what we know about how memory works:

But we've also learned that episodic memory goes beyond conscious recollection, and includes implicit as well as explicit memories -- that is, representations of past experiences that influence experience, thought, and action in the absence of conscious recollection. 

Memory and the Brain

We have also begun to understand the biological bases of learning and memory. 
At the cellular level, learning and are based on long-term potentiation and similar processes.
At higher levels of biological organization, we discover the role of particular brain structures:
The nature of memory is now well understood at the psychological level of analysis -- though there is more to be learned about conscious recollection:
And now that we have accomplished so much at the psychological level of analysis, we can proceed to understand the biological bases of memory, both at the molecular and cellular levels, and in terms of larger structures.  This is part of the frontier of memory research.

Memory and the Self

But there are other frontiers, as well, and at present these have received relatively little attention from psychologists -- or, for that matter, other social scientists.  It's important to appreciate that learning and remembering aren't just things that minds and brains do -- they are also things that people do.

In either case, we need to understand the relation between one's personal recollections and one's theories about oneself.

Memory in Social Relations

In analyzing individual aspects of memory, we must take account of sociocultural factors.  Individuals don't live in isolation from each other.  Rather, we live in groups based on cooperation, competition, and social exchange.  Therefore, we can't understand the individual's mental life and behavior without taking into account the sociocultural context in which the individual lives his/her life.  For this reason, we can't just analyze memory as an individual mental faculty or biological function. 

Moreover, societies and cultures have memories too, and these social representations of the past transcend individual recollections.

What is the nature of collective memory?

Just as we need to know about memory as an individual mental function, we also need to know about collective memory as a sociocultural construct.

We also need to know about the relations between individual and collective memory.

A major plot device in George Orwell's novel, 1984, was the memory hole, which was an instrument for destroying documents, rather than preserving them, as the official version of history changed -- and the representation of the past must be changed accordingly.  Big Brother's assumption, apparently, is that individual memory is also malleable, and that personal recollections will fall in line with the official story.  But this isn't necessarily the case, raising the question of whether individual memories can resist collective forces.


Not Just for Psychologists (or Neuroscientists) Anymore

A full analysis of individual and collective memory is that memory is not just a subject for cognitive psychologists, and cognitive neuroscientists, anymore.  A complete understanding of the nature and function of memory requires contributions from other fields.

But psychology has made a good beginning on our understanding of memory as a faculty of mind, and its biological substrates in the brain.

This page last modified 07/01/2014.