Memory Mondays, Chapter 1: What is Memory?

This blog series takes its inspiration from series like this, and will provide a chapter-by-chapter summary of Memory, by Alan Baddeley,‎ Michael W. Eysenck, and‎ Michael C. Anderson, along with a healthy dose of my views thoughts, interpretations and connections to experience and other things I’ve read.

After reading the text on cognitive psychology, I wanted to delve more deeply into the research on memory, an area of interest for me. This text cam recommended by Logical Incrementalism, and is also four of the first five results in a Google search for “memory textbook.” So it seemed like a good choice.

Regardless of your educational philosophy, of your views on the goals of education and the purpose of school, what students learn is held in their memory. Want your students to know all 44 U.S presidents? Memory. Want them to know how to look that up? Memory. Want them to capitalize their proper nouns? Memory. Want them to have critical thinking skills. Memory. Whatever you want students to take with them when they leave, they take it in their brains.

This stuff might prove useful.

So here it goes.

Clive Bearing and Neuropsychology

There are many tragic cases in psychology, of individuals who sustained brain damage that adversely affects their life, but from whom we gain valuable knowledge o how the brain and mind work. Clive Bearing is one such case: an accomplished musician who contracted a brain infection and became trapped in a “permanent present,” unable to store information for more than a few seconds.

From the tragic case of Bearing, we can learn two main lessons. The first in that memory is important; otherwise, damage to memory systems would not be so disabling. Secondly, it is systems, not system. Despite Bearing’s inability to form new memories, he retained his musical ability. Clearly, memory is not simple.

Theories and Models

While there is a lot of agreement on some aspects of memory, areas of disagreement have also become apparent as I read through the text. There are different theories (maps that summarize our knowledge and support our understanding) for areas such as working memory, and their value is assessed in the extent to which they explain the evidence and help us ask new questions. While it may be more confusing for me at times, that I’m not offered a single, simple explanation, it also show the health of the field; the researchers probe and push each other’s ideas, by offering alternative explanations.

The discussion of different theories has also created situations where the voice and perspectives of the authors slips through. Where most textbooks hide authorial voice, this one does not shy away from a little humour or the occasional inclusion of the much-maligned personal pronoun. It helps keep at the front of my mind the textbook as interpretation, not immune to challenge.

Alongside theories are models, which define theories more precisely and support the making and testing of predictions. Beyond that, I don’t really understand the difference between theories and models, other than the latter is more likely to be accompanied by a diagram.

The Study of Memory

The text takes a psychological approach to the study of the mind, rather than focusing on a neuroscience approach to the study of the brain. That is to say, while the workings of memory cannot be studied directly in this approach, they can be inferred through behaviour. This is my preference. Which parts of the brain are associated with which cognitive functions, the physiology of memory formation, may be interesting, but as a classroom teacher, my concern is with behaviour, with observable learning. While the book does explore the neuroscience side, the focus on the psychological level suits me. Of course, I may just be avoiding the effort of learning the different parts of the brain.

Some may doubt the application of cognitive psychology to classroom practice, and I can understand that view. These laboratory studies bear little resemblance to real world situations. Take Ebbinghaus. He memorized strings of nonsense syllables: not exactly an authentic situation. Yet, this research still holds value. For Ebbinghaus, he demonstrated that it was possible to measure and study memory experimentally, while previous efforts at studying the mind utilized unreliable introspection. These experiments, in their artificial structures, also allow the isolation of particular aspects of memory, that form the building blocks for models that can later be tested for ecological validity (whether they work in the real world). Take digit span. Beyond memorizing phone numbers, the task holds little value, but as a common measure of verbal short-term memory, performance on the task can be compared to other measures, expanding our understanding of the mind. Classroom implications follow later.

This article on how retrieval practice can help with transfer comes to mind; Transfer of learning is a respectable teaching goal, and we want education research to advise us on how to reach it. Research on retrieval practice, while probably initially conducted using meaningless chunks of letters or disconnected or manufactured facts, is robust enough that now studies are applying it to areas of education like transfer.

Memory Systems

Memory has been viewed as multiple systems since the 1960s. Information comes in from the environment and is initially processed by sensory memory, before being passed to temporary short-term memory and later long-term memory. Both short-term memory (STM) and long-term memory (LTM) have their own chapters, and will only be touched on briefly here.

Sensory memory is the brief storage of perceptual information. When you wave a sparkler in a dark room, and it seems to draw a line in the air, that line is lingering information in sensory memory. Generally, sensory memory is regarded as part of perception, and while it feeds information into STM and working memory, it seems to me to hold little relevance to classroom practice. I am not contradicting myself here, after operating for the relevance of cognitive psychology; if sensory memory is operating correctly, there is little for me to consider as a teacher, while if STM and LTM are operating correctly, there are still implications for the design of my lessons and units.

STM is the temporary storage of information, and is related to working memory, but working memory also involves the manipulation of that information. LTM is memory for, well, long periods of time. It can be divided into explicit memory, from which we can consciously retrieve memories, and implicit memory, which we are unaware we have but is shown through changes in behaviour. Explicit memory can be divided into semantic memory, knowledge about the world, and episodic memory, memory of our life events.

So What is Memory

Despite the promises of the chapter title, a clear definition was not offered, I think because memory is something that everyone knows about but of which few people have any degree of understanding. It is also because memory is not simple. Researchers look at both structures and processes: where information is stored, and how it flows, both static and dynamic concerns.

If memory was simple, then I wouldn’t need to do this, would I?

Next week: neuroscience approaches for studying the brain


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