Human memory has oft been compared to that of a video camera, something that accurately records and stores episodes from the past for retrieval at a later date. In truth our recording of memories is through a biased lens, what we do record is often interpreted through our perceptions of how a situation ought to be and when recall what we have stored any incomplete sections are substituted with generic knowledge from a suitable schema. Human memory is fascinatingly malleable and open to suggestibility. Bartlett and Loftus, two prominent key theorists show great insight into the workings of human memory and provide explanations for the errors we encounter during both encoding and remembering.
The common myth that human memory works like a tape recorder mostly represents the layman’s view of how memory works. The truth is far more complex, memory is highly malleable and most certainly not infallible. There are many types of memory but as an overarching, not necessarily all encapsulating definition, memory can be termed as “the encoding, storage, and retrieval in the human mind of past experiences.”( Britannica online) Memory is essential for functioning in everyday life, without it you could not operate as a human being. Our memory of an event is influenced by a range of factors, especially personal bias. Information that is supplied to us after the fact can dramatically influence how we reconstruct an event when calling on it from memory. Our memory does not provide a perfect and factual recollection of events, our imagination and schema for how a certain event should carry out can dramatically influence our recollection. Frederick Bartlett described the process of memory as a collaborative function, related to perception, imagining and constructive thinking and based upon previous knowledge, expectations, beliefs and attitudes that are derived from differing sources. Bartlett coined the term Schemata and the idea that remembering is based on the previously mentioned processes can be attributed to him. To disprove the myth that human memory works like a tape recorder, one must briefly understand a memory model and how memory is thus categorised and stored. Discerning what impacts upon the validity of human memory is a more complex process. As memory is a broad field, the primary focus will be the role of schema and its influence on memory. The Atkinson-Schiffrin model of memory is a three stage model that is comprised of a sensory memory, a short term memory and a long term memory. This model of memory as illustrated in figure 1, shows the process of how memories are stored. Baddeley and Hitch however improved upon this model of memory, creating what is called the working memory model. This model as shown in figure 2 has four sections, the central executive ( the supervisory system) and three slave systems, the phonological loop (language), visuo-spatial sketchpad (visual semantics) and the episodic buffer ( short term episodic memory). The central executive as it is aptly named controls the actions of all the other slave components. The three basic steps in memory are the initial encoding of an episode, the storage of the information and then the retrieval stage where most errors occur, often due to insufficient attention during encoding, or failure to recover the information. Preceding Bartlett the studies of qualitive, accuracy focussed research on memory were evident amongst gestalt psychologist Koffka 1935 and Riley 1962. Wulf (1922), who had subjects draw geometrical figures from memory, identified two opposite types of changes: sharpening, which involves the exaggeration of selected characteristics of the original figure, and levelling, which entails a weakening of one or more features. These changes were assumed to be progressive, such that later reproductions tend to exaggerate the deviations of the previous ones. Based on these results, Wulf put forward three causal factors underlying both levelling and sharpening. The first of which, normalizing, refers to changes toward a well-known or conventional figure. Second Wulf coined pointing which refers to changes that emphasize a feature of the stimulus, and autonomous changes, which reflect systematic self-governed modifications of the memory trace toward simpler and more regular patterns, good form. It is the postulation of autonomous, intrinsic changes operating on the memory trace that is unique to Wulfaa‚¬a„?s Gestalt perspective. The Psych textbook defines schema as an “Integrated pattern of knowledge stored in memory that organises information and guides the acquisition of new information.” Put simply a schema is much like a plan that gives the user a familiar routine to follow or a recognisable way of categorising and dealing with everyday life. We have schemas for nearly everything we do. Therefore it is no surprise that schemas will affect how memories are reconstructed when there is error in the recollection of a past event. The schema theory claims the content of what people remember is a combination of the input information and their pre existing schemas. Any generic understanding of how an event should occur will fill the blanks. Schemas have been proven to affect the connection between input and remembering in several different forms, occurring at different stages in the memory process. Alba & Hasher (1983) identified the effects of five basic types of schema processes. These processes, encoding, abstraction, interpretation, and integration, all occur during encoding, with the exception of reconstruction which occurs during retrieval. All of these effects provide explanations for ways in which memory can fail, or become inaccurate. They are different from forgetting in the understanding that forgetting is a conceived loss of correspondence between the memory and actual occurrence. Selection effects focus more so on the amount of information that is remembered rather than the accuracy. Details of an event that can be incorporated into an active schema have a higher chance of being remembered than information that is irrelevant to the schema. During encoding, the lack of relevant knowledge or a pre conceived schema can dramatically reduce the likelihood the information is to be recalled. (e.g. Johnson 1970) The effects of abstraction are similar to those of selection in that event specific details are often lost as they are encoded under the generic schema for an activity. An example of this is the fact that during encoding of information from a text we do not remember a word for word recount, rather the general gist of it. As does selection effect, this incurs a reduction in the amount of encoded and consequently remembered information. This plays a critical role when determining the validity of a memory and abstraction leaves memory open to alterations and error. For example a witness when asked about their whereabouts at a certain time may try to reconstruct a plausible explanation based upon their schema processes. (Bartlett 1932, Neisser 1967). Dissimilar to both the selection and abstraction errors during encoding and remembering interpretation refers to actual changes and addition to the input information during encoding. This is where the individual uses schematic knowledge to deduce meaning that goes beyond the actual input event, thus becoming part of the memory and its representation. Interpretation can cause a great deal of interference in recollecting accurately if one from the initial encoding cannot determine the veridicality of the situation. Integration is the combination of various fragments of information into a cohesive schematic episode, either whilst or after initial coding. Integration following the first encoding is largely responsible for post event misinformation effects. It also has some use in attempting to explain the hindsight bias people have after being presented with after the fact information that distorts ones initial estimation of an events cause or reasoning. The process of reconstruction is used by people trying to remember forgotten details of an events as evidenced when people fail to accurately recall the correct details consistently. Errors in retrieval and the chance of false recall are symptomatic of the process of giving a probable account of an event rather than the actual reiteration of it. The theory that an event is not simply stored in one place but instead groups fragments or features of the event all over the brain gives some plausibility to the faults inherent in reconstruction. Source monitoring is another way whereby the reconstructive nature of memory retrieval can affect the accuracy of the recollection. The experience of not knowing whether we dreamed or actually experienced an event is an example of confusion of the source which can lead to misattribution of information that came from an internal imagining to a real life event or happening. It involves clarifying the detail, our familiarity, the vividness of the event and its context to determine its origin. Examples of a failure to adequately monitor sources are false memories. The work of Elizabeth Loftus holds great importance, beyond a mere fascination with the working of memory it affects the society we live in directly. Like Bartlett’s her work highlights the impact of suggestibility, and inference in determining how a memory is reconstructed. This carries serious implications in relation to eyewitness testimonies and examination by lawyers. Loftus developed several studies that investigated the reliability of memory, most famously the false memory experiment and the reconstruction of automobile destruction experiment. The automobile destruction experiment was designed to investigate the implications of the wording of certain questions, having particular importance in relation to leading questions in the courtroom. After being shown a video of two cars crashing participants were then asked a set of questions, the importance being placed on the speed the vehicles were travelling at. As evidenced in figure 3 the more provocative or aggressive the verb used, the higher the estimated impact speed. This shows how wording can influence the reconstruction of a memory and the judgements made of it. It is evident that memory does not accurately record events like a tape recorder. There are many factors that influence our memories, some of which we do not fully understand. We must remember that our memories are not concrete; they are impressionable and open to personal bias. Not only does our perception play a dramatic role in memory but the fact that very few people can recall every single action or occurrence in an event accurately shows how much schemas contribute to fill the gaps in memory, often without our conscious knowledge.