Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Memory Decreases for Prose, but Not for Poetry

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Memory Decreases for Prose, but Not for Poetry

Article excerpt

Memory for details of text generally declines relatively rapidly, whereas memory for propositional and context-based meanings is generally more resilient over time. In the present study, we investigated short-term memory for two kinds of verbal material: prose and poetry. Participants heard or read prose stories or poems in which a phrase near the start of the passage served as a target. The text continued, and after various delays, memory was tested with a repetition of the target (old verbatim; O), a paraphrased lure (P), or a lure in which the meaning was changed. For prose, memory for surface details (as measured by O/P discrimination) declined over time (Experiments 2-4), as was expected. For poetry, memory for surface details (O/P discrimination) did not decline with increasing delay (Experiments 1, 3, and 4). This lack of decline in memory for the surface details of poetry is discussed in relation to similar results previously observed for musical excerpts (Dowling, Tillmann, & Ayers, 2001), suggesting that a particular role is played by the temporal organization and rhythmic structure of poetry and music.

It seems to be a well-established fact that recall and recognition of items in short-term memory decline over time (e.g., Ebbinghaus, 1885). In addition, memory theories generally predict that additional material occurring during the delay between presentation of an item and its test interferes with memory performance (e.g., Baddeley, 1986, 1990; Waugh & Norman, 1965). This result has been reported not only for unconnected lists of words and sentences (e.g., Mehler & Carey, 1967), but also for coherent prose stories (Sachs, 1967). Sachs had participants listen to short prose stories and tested them during the ongoing presentation. A sentence near the beginning of the story was selected as the target. The story continued for varying delays, and a test phrase was presented that was identical to the original item (which we designate old verbatim; O), had its meaning changed (M), or had the same meaning as the original item but was altered in word order or verb form (a paraphrased lure; P). The participants had to discriminate the original target phrase from the changed foil phrases. Although immediate testing led to high performance overall, discrimination between Os and Ps dropped considerably with increasing delay, whereas O/M discrimination declined only slightly. This outcome reflects the loss of fine surface details over time, with relatively strong retention of semantic meaning. Gernsbacher (1985, 1990) has replicated and extended this data pattern with prose and picture stories.

Levels of Representation

An influential approach conceptualizing sentence and discourse memory distinguishes three levels in the memory representation of text (Kintsch, 1 994; Kintsch, Welsch, Schmalhofer, & Zimny, 1990; van Dijk & Kintsch, 1983): the surface, verbatim form (consisting of the specific words and syntax); the textbase or propositional form (an abstract representation of the meaning in terms of the information conveyed hi the text); and the situation model (an abstract characterization of the pragmatic situation that the text describes). Most studies have focused on the propositional text representation and the situation model (e.g., Fletcher & Chrysler, 1990; Schmalhofer & Glavanov, 1986), with only a few arguing for the importance of a surface level representation (Glanzer, Dorfman, & Kaplan, 1981). The three interrelated memory traces display distinct patterns of acquisition and retention in the time course of memory. Sachs's (1967) results illustrate the rapid decline in the strength of the surface representation and the longer retention of the propositional representation. Fletcher (1994) reviewed evidence that memory for the situation model can be even more resilient to forgetting than can memory for propositional structures (see also Kintsch et al., 1990, Experiment 1). …

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