Memory Reconstruction

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Psychologists generally accept the idea that long-term memories are reconstructive. That is, rather than containing an exact and detailed record of our past, like a video recording, our memories are instead more generic. As a better analogy, consider paleontologists who must reconstruct a dinosaur from bits and pieces of actual bones. They begin with a general idea or scheme of what the dinosaur looked like and then fit the bits and pieces into the overall framework. Likewise, in remembering, we begin with general themes about past events and later weave in bits and pieces of detail to develop a coherent story. Whether the narrative that we weave today can faithfully capture the distant past is a matter of dispute. In many cases psychologists have discovered that recollections can deviate greatly from the way the events actually occurred, just as in the anecdote about Piaget.

Sir Frederic Bartlett, a British psychologist, argued for the reconstructive nature of memory in the 1930s. He introduced the term schema and its plural form schemata to refer to the general themes that we retain of experience. For example, if you wanted to remember a new fairy tale, you would try to integrate information from the new tale into your general schema for what a fairy tale is. Many researchers have showed that schemata can distort the memories that people form of events. That is, people will sometimes remove or omit details of an experience from memory if they do not fit well with the schema. Similarly, people may confidently remember details that did not actually occur because they are consistent with the schema.

Another way our cognitive system introduces error is by means of inference. Whenever humans encode information, they tend to make inferences and assumptions that go beyond the literal information given. For example, one study showed that if people read a sentence such as “The karate champion hit the cinder block,” they would often remember the sentence as “The karate champion broke the cinder block.” The remembered version of the events is implied by the original sentence but is not literally stated there (the champion may have hit the block and not broken it). Many memory distortions arise from these errors of encoding, in which the information encoded into memory is not literally what was perceived but is some extension of it.

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