Memory is a constructive and active process, evaluate this claim…

Memory is a well-researched area of psychology dating back many years. In its most basic form it comprises of three key processes. These processes are encoding, which is responsible for entering information gathered through the senses and encoding it into the memory system. Storage, which is used to retain coded information in the memory system and retrieval which is the final stage of the three key memory processes, and it involves getting all of this information out of the memory store.

There are many aspects that make up memory processes and the way in which memory is discussed, researched and understood today is drastically different from when psychologists first started discussing memory and its functions. Defining memory is not necessarily straightforward as it encompasses a number of aspects from retaining information such as events and images etc. to acting as the storage system in the brain which holds this information. These simplified aspects of memory make up the processing model of encoding-storage-retrieval. It is a ‘bottom-up’ model which is a cognitive theory beginning with inputting information in its ‘raw’ form and then working ‘upwards’ through other processes, in this case from encoding to storage to finally the retrieval.
As mentioned there are a number of aspects which make up memory and processes of memory which can lead us to argue that memory as a whole may not be a constructive and active processes as there are so many individual components that certain elements of memory may be a passive process.

A supporter of memory being an active process is Frederic C. Bartlett (1932 cited in Brace and Roth 2007) who used a number of stories in order to demonstrate the dynamic and active process he argues memory is. One particular story is ‘The War of the Ghosts’ (1932) Briefly, the story begins with two young men and goes on to describe a journey they undertake providing a great amount of detail along the way such as how the weather was at certain points, individuals comments right down to the feelings that were experienced. ‘Bartlett found that, when people tried to recall the story, the one they told was different from the original.’ (Brace and Roth, 2007. P.132) His work suggests (that) a top-down approach, again a cognitive process ‘controlled by general principles, thoughts or ideas about the nature of the material being processed.’ (Reber, 2001) Another of Bartlett’s ((1932)) ideas is that we use pre-existing schematic information to rework memories producing alternative versions depending upon an individuals’ needs and circumstances. Schematic information relates to ‘mental representations that are constructed as a result of past experience; any new perceptual input is interpreted in terms of these schemata.’ (Brace and Roth, 2007. P.132) Bartlett ((1932)) uses experiments in order to research memory and his work does seem to have ecological validity. ‘The War of the Ghosts’ (1932) and similar stories may show how knowledge we have gained previously, influences what we remember from an event or situation. Put simply Bartlett ((1932)) suggests that what you recall and ‘remember’ after hearing a story is dependent on knowledge previously gained. A number of factors can influence the accuracy of an individual’s memory and information may become merged with other information.

Issues affecting the accuracy of memory may also be a result of earlier processes, such as information not being encoded properly or efficiently along with a number of other reasons e.g. cues that were present at encoding not being available at retrieval. This may lead to discussion and an argument that memory is a constructive and active process due to the changeable nature in the way (in which) memory becomes effective. Alongside Bartlett’s (1932) thoughts, more recent discussion provided by Loftus and Palmer ((1974)) focuses on ‘leading questions’ with regards to memory and the effect they have. ‘Loftus and Palmer (1974) showed video clips of car accidents to 45 participants who were then asked to describe what happened and were (posed) given a number of specific questions.’ (cited in Brace and Roth, 2007. P.133) Participants were then later asked these questions which were made up of the same sentence with a differing verb. The original question used the word ‘hit’ with regards to the cars colliding however alternative words which were used were words such as ‘bumped’ or ‘smashed’ etc. ((2007)). Similarly to Bartlett’s findings that individuals’ accounts differ when retelling information, Loftus and Palmer (1974 suggest the same occurs when recalling specific information. Loftus and Palmer (1974) found that ‘participants’ responses showed that estimates of speed increased with the increased violence implied by the verb.’ (Brace and Roth, 2007. P.133) Along with leading questions this research focuses on the ‘misinformation effect’ which has direct links and similarities to memory being a constructive and active process. The misinformation effect involved information and knowledge which is gained at a later date having an effect on earlier information which had already been stored within the memory. This suggests that memory is an active process both building on and taking from previously encoded information.

Although there is evidence supporting the notion that memory is a constructive and active process it can also be argued that memory, or at least certain aspects of memory, is a passive process of recording information. ‘Enduring memories’ are generally accurate and long-lasting leading to information being well remembered and accessed with little or no effort. (you need some brief description of evidence and a reference here). Another aspect of memory which could be used to argue that memory is a passive process is that of ‘flashbulb memories.’ ‘Brown and Kulik (1977 cited in Brace and Roth 2007) coined the term ‘flashbulb memory’ to refer to an autobiographical memory for the personal circumstances during which we first learn of a very surprising and emotionally arousing event.’ (Brace and Roth, 2007. P.140) This may suggest that flashbulb memories are produced efficiently and rapidly and don’t take the repetition and recall that other forms of knowledge and memory need in order for it to be stored. Therefore enduring memories and flashbulb memories may be more of a passive process.

Memory is a complex and changeable mechanism which is made up of a number of processes however whether memory is a constructive and active process is still debatable. There is a vast array of information and evidence such as Bartlett’s (1932) ‘The War of the Ghosts’ to Loftus and Palmer’s (1974) research using video clips of car accidents and the misinformation effect which all suggest that memory is an active process as it is constantly drawing on stored knowledge whilst encompassing new knowledge. However it is important to consider conflicting evidence which supports (a more passive approach to) that some aspect of memory are passive, such as enduring memories, which focus on longer term memory and information being stored and retrieved more passively. Brown and Kulik’s (1977) flashbulb memory also supports the notion that memory has a passive element. (In my opinion,) It would seem, drawing from evidence presented, that memory involves (d) both active and passive processes depending on social and environmental factors present at the time.

Brace, N. and Roth, I. (2007) ‘Memory: structures, processes and skills’ in D. Miell, A. Phoenix, and K. Thomas. Mapping Psychology, Milton Keynes, The Open University

Reber, A and Reber, E. (2001) ‘Top-down processing’ in Reber. A, and Reber. E. The Penguin Dictionary of Psychology, London, The Penguin Group


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