FALSE AND RECOVERED MEMORIES
The ability to store and later recall previously learned facts and experiences.
The brain's capacity to remember remains one of the least understood areas of science. What is understood is that memory is a process that occurs constantly and in varying stages. The memory process occurs in three stages: encoding, storage, and retrieval. Conditions present during each of these stages affect the quality of the memory, and breakdowns at any of these points can cause memory failure.
Stages of Memory
The first stage, encoding, is the reception by the brain of some physical input that is changed into a form that the memory accepts. When a person is introduced to someone new, for example, that person's name becomes a part of memory. Before information can be encoded, it first must be recognized and noted by the recipient. During the second stage, storage, learned facts or experiences are retained in either short-term or long-term memory. In the third, or retrieval, stage, memory allows the previously learned facts or experiences to be recalled. Each of these stages play an important role in both short-term and long-term memory, although it is believed they work differently depending on which memory is used.
As the term implies, short-term memory is used for items that need recall over short periods of time, sometimes as little as seconds. It is believed that short-term memories are encoded either visually or acoustically. Visual encoding is primary for recalling faces, places, and other visual experiences, while acoustic encoding is most important for verbal material. After looking up a number in a telephone book, for example, most people repeat the number to themselves several times before dialing the number. Rather than visualizing the written form of the numbers, the sound of the words becomes the means for recall. Experiments have demonstrated the importance of acoustic coding in the ability to recall lists of words or letters as well. When subjects were asked to recall a sequence of letters, those who made errors replaced the correct letter with a similarly sounding letter, for example "D" instead of "T."
Adequate operation of short-term memory is crucial when performing such everyday activities as reading or conversing. However, the capacity of short-term memory is quite limited. Studies have shown consistently that there is room in short-term memory for an average of seven items, plus or minus two (known as magic number seven). In experiments in which subjects are asked to recall a series of unrelated numbers or words, for example, some are able to recall nine and others only five, but most will recall seven words. As the list of things to be remembered increases, new items can displace previous items in the current list. Memory uses a process called "chunking" to increase the capacity of short-term memory. While most people still can use only seven "slots" of memory, facts or information can be grouped in meaningful ways to form a chunk of memory. These chunks of related items then act as one item within short-term memory.
Long-term memory contains information that has been stored for longer periods of time, ranging from a few minutes to a lifetime. When translating information for long-term memory, the brain uses meaning as a primary method for encoding. When attempting to recall a list of unrelated words, for instance, subjects often try to link the words in a sentence. The more the meaning of the information is elaborated, the more it will be recalled. Voices, odors, and tastes also are stored in long-term memory, which indicates that other means of encoding besides meaning, are also used. Items are regularly transferred back and forth from short-term to long-term memory. For example, rehearsing facts can transfer short-term memory into long-term. The chunking process in long-term memory can increase the capacity of short-term memory when various chunks of information are called upon to be used.
The breakdown in the retrieval of information from either memory can be the result of various factors, including interference, decay, or storage problems. In addition, researchers believe it is unlikely that all experiences or facts are stored in memory and thus are available for retrieval. Emotional factors, including anxiety, also contribute to memory failure in certain situations. Test anxiety, for example, may cause a student to forget factual information despite how well it has been learned. Amnesia, a partial or total loss of memory, may be caused by stroke, injury to the brain, surgery, alcohol dependence, encephalitis, and electroconvulsive therapy (ECT).
Many methods can be used to improve memory. Long-term memory may be improved using mnemonic, or memory-aiding, systems. One, the "method of loci" system, encourages an association between various images and unrelated words. The "key word" method of learning a foreign language links the pronunciation of a new word with a picture that corresponds to the sound of the word. Context is another powerful memory aid that recognizes that people recall more easily facts or events
FALSE AND RECOVERED MEMORIES
As of the late 1990s, research into recovered memories was characterized by tremendous controversy. A leading researcher in this subject, Elizabeth Loftus, conducted studies on over 20,000 subjects, and pointed to evidence she felt was convincing that memory is both fragile and unreliable. Her work supported, the notion that eyewitness accounts of events are often inaccurate, and that false memories can be created through suggestion in approximately 25% of the population. Loftus's work calls into question the validity of memories that are recovered under coaching or questioning; such memories have provided the basis for countless lawsuits brought against adults who are accused of molesting children. Her research has shown that emotional state— either low points, such as boredom or sleepiness or high points, such as stress or trauma—decrease the reliability of memory. She has also shown that experiencing violent and traumatic events decreases the accuracy of memory. Loftus theorizes that memory is suggestible and deteriorates over time. In her classic study, known as "Lost in the Shopping Mall," she demonstrated that subjects—children and teenagers—could be induced to remember being lost in a mall at an early age, even though it never actually happened, by simply questioning them about it as if it had happened.
One of the problems with the recovery of repressed memories is the very process of recovery. Many individuals recover memories while in therapy, under hypnosis, or in some other situation where the possibility of suggestion is powerful. In the late 1990s, in response to the swelling controversy over recovered memories, the American Medical Association, American Psychiatric Association, and American Psychological Association all issued guidelines to help practitioners deal with reports of recovered memories, especially of sexual abuse during childhood. In general, most physicians, psychiatrists, and psychologists suggest that recovered memories be corroborated through external investigation, and that alternative explanations for the existence of the memories be considered before any legal action be taken based on them.
False memory syndrome is dividing the field of professional psychotherapy. Some psychotherapists believe that to question the interpretation of and belief in recovered memories is to undermine the possibility of the existence of repression; others see the challenge to recovered memories as a sign of society's refusal to confront a serious problem with child abuse and abuse of women. Others contend that there are no psychoanalytic theories to support forgetting of traumatic events, or their detailed recall after the passage of time.
more easily if they are placed in the same environment in which they learned them. For example, a person is more likely to recall specific memories from high school if they go to the school and retrace their paths.
Imposing a meaningful organization on an unrelated group of facts or words also improves memory. The EGBDF notes that represent the lines on a musical staff often are recalled using the sentence, "Every good boy does fine." The sentence has nothing to do with music; rather, it places a meaning on letters that, at first glance, seem random. Another notable mnemonic system, the PQRST method, is helpful in assisting students learn textbook material. The letters correspond to the five steps of the method: preview, question, read, self-recitation and test.
Questions of the reliability and fragility of memory have surrounded the controversy of false and recovered memory that surface under questioning primarily by psychotherapists. As lawsuits based upon recovered memory have been filed against adults accused of molesting children and in at least one case, the death of a childhood friend, recovered memories have come under scrutiny and questions raised about the validity, especially when memory has been recovered under coaching. Researcher Elizabeth Loftus, who conducted studies on 20,000 subjects, found that false memories could be created through suggestion in 25% of the population; eye witness accounts, she found, are often inaccurate. The emotional state of either low points, such as boredom or sleepiness or high points, such as stress or trauma, decrease the accuracy of memory, Loftus found. She theorizes that memory deteriorates over time and is vulnerable to suggestion. In one study, known as "Lost in the Shopping Mall," Loftus demonstrated that subjects, children and teenagers, could be induced to remember being lost in a mall at an early age by simply questioning them about the experience as if it happened.
In response to increasing controversy over recovered memories, the American Medical Association, American Psychiatric Association and American Psychological Association all issued guidelines to help practitioners deal with reports of recovered memories, especially of sexual abuse during childhood. Before any legal action is taken based on recovered memories, most physicians, psychiatrists, and psychologists suggest that recovered memories receive corroboration through external investigation and an alternative explanation for the existence of the memories be considered. The field of professional psychotherapy is divided on false memory syndrome. To question the interpretation of and belief in recovered memories undermines the possibility of the existence of repression, according to some psychotherapists; others see the challenge to recovered memories as coming from a refusal by society to confront a serious problem with child abuse and abuse of women. Yet others contend there are no psychoanalytic theories to support forgetting traumatic events or support their detailed recall after the passage of time.
Bartlett, Frederic C. Remembering: A Study in Experimental and Social Psychology New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Damasio, Antonio. Descartes'Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain.. New York: G.P. Putnam, 1994.
Loftus, Elizabeth F. and Ketcham, Katherine. The Myth of Repressed Memory: False Memories and Allegations of Sexual Abuse. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994.
Rubin, David C. Remembering Our Past: Studies in Autobiographical Memory. Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Schacter, Daniel L. Searching for Memory: The Brain, the Mind, and the Past. New York: Basic Books, 1996.