Varieties of Memory and Consciousness: Essays in Honour of Endel Tulving

By Henry L. Roediger III; Fergus I. M. Craik et al. | Go to book overview

3 Willful and Nonwillful Determinants of Memory

Michael J. Watkins Rice University

Memory of a stimulus object is of the object as it is experienced in conscious mind rather than of the object as it impinges upon the sensory receptors. In other words, what is remembered is the object as encoded1. The concern of this chapter is with the control of the encoding, and specifically with the extent to which the encoding is under the willful control of the rememberer.

This issue is, in my opinion, as important as any in cognitive psychology, and can be fairly said to have dominated the way memory has been conceptualized. And yet, paradoxically, it is an issue that has received remarkably little balanced discussion. Theorists have tended to adopt an extreme position and appear to have seen little of merit in the opposing position. An encapsulated history of the experimental study of memory illustrates the point.

Ebbinghaus ( 1885/ 1964) was balanced in his viewpoint but not in his research. This is hardly surprising. Memory and the other "higher mental processes" were, at the time, considered too complex to submit to the experimental method, and Ebbinghaus was aware that much of the complexity was attributable to willful control over the encoding process. It was natural, then, that in seeking to demonstrate that memory could in fact be explored by the experimental method, Ebbinghaus went to great lengths to keep willful control to a minimum. This he did by using nonsense syllables (which he assumed would be less prone to yield unwanted associations than would words or other stimuli he might have

____________________
1
It is important to be clear that encoding is not being used here to refer to a hypothetical process whereby information is registered in a hypothetical memory trace. In one guise or another, the concept of memory trace is given central place in just about all memory theories, and in the author's view, this is a universal mistake (see Watkins, 1981).

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