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.
- It can't respond to
situations that are not physically present, because it has no
way of representing them mentally.
- It can't respond to
a rapidly changing environment, because its behavioral
mechanisms have been fixed over the slow course of
- It can't analyze
current stimuli for meaning, because it lacks the cognitive
capacity to analyze anything beyond the physical stimulus.
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.
- Memory allows the
perceiver to recognize a distal stimulus as familiar, by
connecting the current event to past events.
- Memory allows the
perceiver to infer the attributes, correlates, and
consequences of the stimulus, by drawing on previously
acquired world knowledge.
- Put another way,
paraphrasing Bruner, every act of perception is an act of
categorization. In categorization, the mental
representation of the stimulus makes contact with pre-existing
knowledge stored in memory, so that the perceiver can
determine how the stimulus is similar to some objects and
events, and different from others. This categorical
knowledge is stored in memory, and categorization changes the
contents of memory -- by adding a new instance to the
Finally, memory provides
the basis for some emotions and motives.
- The rules of
judgment, decision-making, and grammar are stored in memory.
- Objects and events
are symbolically represented by words, and this mental lexicon
is also stored in memory.
- Some emotional
responses involve the comparison between the present and the
past. This is not possible without mental
representations of the past stored in memory.
- Some motives involve
representations of long-term goals, not immediately presented
by the environment. This, also, is not possible without
mental representations of the future stored in, or at
least generated by, 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.
memory a component of declarative memory, which
stores the meanings of words and other symbols, and the
definitions of categories.
- Procedural memory,
storing the repository of skills, rules, and strategies used
to manipulate and transform symbolic representations, and
translate ideas into actions.
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.
memory stores knowledge of particular experiences --
knowledge which makes reference to a specific episodic
context, the time and place in which an event occurred.
- Episodic memory also
records the involvement of the self as the agent or patient of
some action, or the stimulus or experiencer of some state.
So, viewed as a mental faculty, we now have the architecture of
- Memory stores mental
representations of knowledge acquired through experience.
- Memory honors a
distinction between declarative and procedural knowledge, or
between facts and rules.
- And there are two
forms of declarative knowledge, episodic and semantic, or
between abstract and contextualized facts.
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:
- Availability vs.
- Encoding Specificity
- Schematic Processing
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
- In some respects,
implicit memories appear to alter the rules of memory, because
they appear to be less dependent on elaborative processing at
the time of encoding.
- The distinction
between implicit and explicit memories is very important,
because it shows that the hoary notion of unconscious
influence is scientifically viable, and provides us with a
methodology for studying unconscious influences in other
- It also raises the
question of how conscious and unconscious memories differ, and
may lead to a better understanding of consciousness itself.
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
- We always understood
that the nervous system had something to do with
it(!). Mental representations of knowledge and
experience must have corresponding representations at the
- Now, newly emerging
technologies such as brain-imaging and single-unit recording
permit us to go beyond earlier studies involving brain lesions
and surface recordings such as the EEG.
- The biological basis
of memory can be approached at many different levels of
At higher levels of
biological organization, we discover the role of particular brain
- The repeated joint
firing of particular pre- and post-synaptic neurons increases
the strength of the synaptic connection between them.
- The result is a
reorganization of neural tissue as a result of experience -- a
reorganization that constitutes the neural substrate of
The nature of memory is
now well understood at the psychological level of analysis --
though there is more to be learned about conscious recollection:
- The medial
temporal lobe memory system consists of the hippocampus
and related structures, such as the perirhinal cortex,
entorhinal cortex, and parahippocampal cortex.
- This appears to be
critical for the conscious recollection of past experiences.
- It is not
critical for the acquisition of procedural or semantic
- It is not
critical for the implicit expression of episodic memories.
- There are probably
other brain systems which mediate other aspects of learning
- The amygdala may
play a special role in emotional learning.
- The cerebellum
seems to play a critical role in classical conditioning.
- The cerebellum
-- it's not just for motor coordination any more.
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.
- What accounts for
the experience of "reliving" a past episode.
- The nature of
unconscious memories of the past.
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.
- Episodic memory,
especially, is critical to the personal self: it's the
narrative record of autobiographical memory, and reflects how
the individual organizes and understands his own experiences
- So we need to
understand the individual's memory, as an aspect, and
expression, of identity -- how what a person remembers
relates to who that person is.
- And we need to
understand how memory relates to other aspects of
personality, particularly the person's affective and
- Just as memories are
reconstructed, not just retrieved, so personality is
continually shaped and reshaped by experience.
- We can study
memory to understand these formative experiences.
- But memory may also
be reciprocally shaped by personality.
- What a person is
may determine what s/he will remember.
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
- At the very least,
we need to understand how the individual's memories may be
shaped by social influences. The same processes of
conformity and persuasion that shape the individual's beliefs,
attitudes, and behaviors may shape the individual's memories
of the past as well.
- Also, sharing of
memories is an important social function.
memories connect individual's personal narratives to
the historical record.
- Shared memories
connect individual people to each other.
Moreover, societies and
cultures have memories too, and these social representations of
the past transcend individual recollections.
- Consider the ethnic
conflict in the former Yugoslavia, where the rallying cry of
the Serbs against the Muslims was, essentially, "Remember
- But nobody
remembers 1389 -- at least, not as a personal recollection.
- Still Serb
cultural identity depends on the preservation of this
- Similarly, consider
the motto of survivors of the Holocaust during World War II:
- But within the
next half-century, the last Holocaust survivor will be dead.
- Still, memories of
the Holocaust will persevere in cultural artifacts such as
Yad Vashem in Israel, and Holocaust memorials in many other
countries around the world.
What is the nature of
- Societies preserve
representations of the past in the form of memorials,
monuments, and museums such as the Pearl Harbor Memorial and
- Cultures also
preserve representations of the past.
- In Christianity,
the festival of Christmas commemorates the birth of Jesus.
- In Hispanic
cultures, La Posada re-enacts the search of Mary
and Joseph for shelter in Jerusalem.
- In Judaism,
Hanukkah celebrates the victory of the Jews over Syria, and
the re-dedication of the Temple.
- In Islam, Ramadan
celebrates the revelation of the Koran to Mohamed.
- The evolutionary
biologist Richard Dawkins has introduced the concept of memes
to refer to elements of culture which are preserved in
knowledge, belief, and memory.
- Naturally, for an
evolutionary biologist, Dawkins believes that memes are
preserved, and modified, through a process analogous to
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.
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
But psychology has made a
good beginning on our understanding of memory as a faculty of
mind, and its biological substrates in the brain.
- Personality, social,
and clinical psychology.
anthropology, and history
- Literary studies,
and even music and art history.
page last modified 07/01/2014.