Understanding how memory works is a complex yet crucial endeavor in psychology, as it plays an crucial role in everyday life. Memory serves to preserve information by a series of processes (Miell, 2007):
- encoding (putting information into memory)
- storing (retaining information)
- retrieval (getting information back out of memory)
By examining these processes (namely encoding and retrieval), cognitive studies shed light on different levels of analyses, including information-processing and memory construction. Several research methods exist; some psychologists ardently favor scientific and objective research based on experiments, whilst others prefer insider perspectives in the form of narratives and case studies. Each can operate independently, however benefits are apparent when a combination of both is used to obtain results. Experimental results can be enriched by insider viewpoints, and insider perspectives can be standardized for use in statistical analysis. Since there are myriad of ways to study memory, research in this area remains active and robust.
It is important to clarify the definitions of the outsider approach and the insider approach. In simple terms, outsider approaches measure people, whilst insider approaches understand them. Aside from functionality, memory unwittingly grants people a sense of self, which is why memory research plays such an important role in holistic psychological approaches and identity formation (Miell, 2007). This is ultimately a question of objectivity versus subjectivity, and both are equally important in psychology: the study (objective) of the soul (subjective) (Online Etymology Dictionary, 2012). This essay will assess the strengths and weaknesses of both approaches in an attempt to gauge their contributions to memory research.
Introspection and reflection are very common in psychology. This subjective approach offers nuanced insight and acknowledges individual differences. At the same time, the data obtained from this approach lacks transferability due to variations that naturally occur between people. A great example of this is Marigold Linton. Linton(1982) conducted a pioneering diary study (a purely insider approach) (Miell, 2007). She recorded her activities and used this record to observe her own autobiographical memory over a six year period. Through this she yielded interesting results, such as discovering that her memory for events decreased annually by 5 per cent. Whilst her results that later coincided with similar results from fellow researchers (eg, Conway, 1996, as cited in Miell, 2007), there are several limitations with this kind of study.
The first limitation is precisely the fact that each individual marks the information that they personally have attended to. As attentional resources are limited (Kahneman, 1973) objectivity about the actual situation is ambiguous. Secondly, the very act of writing down the event may also aide future memory retrieval (Miell, 2007), thus skewing the results. Finally, according to Conway (1996), autobiographical memories are personal interpretations of events and inaccurate as a representation of past experience (Miell, 2007). This is further supported by Frederick Bartlett’s findings on the influence social factors have on memory; he stated current knowledge and past experiences shape how individuals make sense of material, a process known as ‘effort after meaning’ (Miell, 2007). As Bartlett suggested, insider perspectives may operate in a top-down manner which could influence the process of perception and memory, and thus our own expectations and knowledge of events and information (Miell, 2007).
This raises questions about the reliability of memory, which is the strongest rebuttal to a purely insider viewpoint. In a study by Loftus and Palmer (1974), Loftus observed the misinformation effect by asking participants leading questions. The results indicate that certain words triggered ‘memories’ that didn’t actually exist. Crombag et al (1996) yielded similar results regarding the Boeing 747 crash in The Netherlands (Miell, 2007). Even entire histories can be re-written (Gergen, 1999). Whilst this may be adverse in the long-term study of memory research, there are clear benefits to humanity in being able to do so. Rewriting collective memories in order to re-negotiate the past (Nuttall and Coetzee, 1998) can aide reconciliation efforts, and allow groups to start from a clean slate. As an idea, it subscribes to the concept of social constructionism (Miell, 2007). In other words, memory (and its pliability) is contingent upon a person’s sense of identity and how it changes over time.
Brown and Kulik (1977) challenge this idea of inconsistency with ‘flashbulb’ memory, where certain events evoke such deep emotions that the encoding that occurs during this time is extremely elaborative, and is therefore remembered with crystal clear accuracy. This is especially true if the autobiographical memory is highly significant to the viewer (Conway et al, 1994). As a result, whilst memory is indeed pliable, the theory of ‘flashbulb’ memory reminds psychologists that memory can be completely accurate (Miell, 2007), a theory that would remain unknown without both insider and outsider perspectives.
This combination of both perspectives is the crux of this essay. Whilst outsider viewpoints abound in memory research as they are easily measurable and objective, there are instances where a reflection of inner experiences could enrich the results. This next part is dedicated to identifying the strengths and weaknesses of outsider experiments, and how insider viewpoints could have been beneficial.
In an effort to understand the encoding process in memory, Martin Conway conducted a longitudinal study of twelve years on students who had just completed their cognitive psychology course in order to observe how long they would be able to retain information from said course (Conway et al, 1991, as cited in Miell, 2007). He found that certain types of information, such as concepts and ideas about the course, were retained for a longer period of time than others, such as names. In fact, during the first 3-4 years, when memories regarding the course started to decline, names declined more than any other kind of knowledge (Miell, 2007). According to the levels of processing theory (Craik and Longhart, 1972), how deeply information is engrained in memory relates to how long it is retained (Miell, 2007). Conway’s study implies that elaborative rehearsal is the reason why students were able to retain data in their long-term memory. It does not explain why names were easier to forget.
The encoding specificity principle was coined by Tulving (1975, 1983, as cited in Miell, 2007). It is based on the idea that retrieval of information from memory relies on cues that are available both upon encoding and at retrieval (Miell, 2007). If the retrieval cues share features with the memory that is being retrieved, Tulving found that it was possible to remember more (Miell, 2007). A good example of this might be recognizing a face (cue) and remembering the name (memory). Cues are any stimulus that can help people recall information from long-term memory; as a result, they vary from person to person. Seeking a deeper understanding of what makes some cues more salient than others requires an insider’s perspective, and may offer insight regarding their efficiency.
Furthermore, in order to understand memory endurance, Bahrick et al (1975, as cited in Miell, 2007) conducted a cross-sectional quasi-experimental study regarding classmate recognition with the use of old yearbooks. He designed several recognition and matching tests, and found that hardly any forgetting took place during the first 35 years after graduation. Bahrick argued that this was because the material being retrieved involved repeated learning, and had been acquired over a long period of time and with distributed practice (Miell, 2007). This study indicated that visual cues aide memory. Constant contact with classmates may also play a role; evidence suggests that conceptual principles of scientific texts become more embedded in memory if individuals are repeatedly exposed to them (Mayer, 1983, as cited in Miell, 2007). Differences between ‘remembering’ and ‘knowing’ (Tulving, 1985) are also acknowledged, however they are beyond the scope of this essay.
Repeated exposure to individuals could yield similar results, thereby the more frequent and meaningful interaction is between individuals, the more likely it is that they will remember each others names years later. In other words, each participant’s personal relationships could reflect the impact these relationships have on memory, and what makes some names easier to forget than others. Also, with regards to Mayer’s findings, whilst the results indicate that repeated exposure does improve understanding and therefore memory of the contents of the text, perhaps there still is a gap in determining the speed at which this happens and why. Individual interest in the subject matter may play a role in how quickly and effectively the text is encoded in memory.
Stevens (1988) discovered waitresses use visual imagery of the restaurants they work in to link orders to customers. Visual imagery is the basis for all mnemonic devices which is a technique used to enhance memory. However, this does not take into account the particular mnemonic devices each waitress uses, something which an insider viewpoint might clarify. Research on mnemonists by Wilding and Valentine (1994) indicates some participants had variations in memory strategies, whereas others had a ‘natural’ knack for remembering specific subject matters, and others a combination of the two. Advances in technology have given scientists a material link between the biology of the brain and visual imagery in the use of memory.
In a study of London taxi drivers, Maguire et al (1997) used positron emission tomography (PET) to brain-scan the drivers as they imagined the routes they were planning on taking. The scans revealed intense activity in the right hippocampus, something that did not occur occur otherwise (Miell, 2007). In a follow-up study, Maguire et al. (2000) was able to see physical differences in the hippocampal areas of taxi-drivers and control participants – the posterior hippocampal area of taxi-drivers was bigger as a result of an increase in the number of connections between nerve cells – a direct result from years of intense training (Miell, 2007). Without the PET scans, Mayer would have been unable to observe the plasticity of the brain and make inferences about cognitive function. This outsider perspective complimented the taxi drivers’ inner experience, indicating that as new skills are acquired, the brain adapts (Miell, 2007). In some cases, where memory has atypical function, this may be a hindrance to the human experience rather than a blessing (Luria,1969).
Neuropsychological case studies investigate memory deficits that arise from brain damage. Not only might functionality be reduced (outsider), but personality may also be affected (insider). This was discussed by Vargha-Khadem and her patient J. Forbes, who was unable to form ‘truly vivid memories with personal meaning for him‘ (Hippocampus Damage, 2012). She was able to show images of his brain via scans and his impaired hippocampus, which is responsible for storing and retrieving ‘all emotional and sensory aspects of an experience‘ (Hippocampus Damage, 2012). Without outsider observation from a biological perspective, and an insider account of what is happening to the patient, psychologists would be unable to determine the cause of John’s memory loss.
To conclude, studies regarding memory employ introspection, experimentation, and biological psychology to understand the cognitive processes involved. Examples have been given of how these approaches can be integrated, despite the differences between methods. There is an undeniable interplay between the insider and outsider perspectives, and new approaches endow current models with a greater variety of methodologies, thus empowering memory research.
- first submitted as an Open University coursework
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