memory (in psychology)

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

memory (in psychology)

memory, in psychology, the storing of learned information, and the ability to recall that which has been stored. It has been hypothesized that three processes occur in remembering: perception and registering of a stimulus; temporary maintenance of the perception, or short-term memory; and lasting storage of the perception, or long-term memory. Two major recognized types of long-term memory are procedural memory, involving the recall of learned skills, and declarative memory, the remembrance of specific stimuli. For long-term memory to occur, there must be a period of information consolidation.

The process of forgetting was first studied scientifically by Hermann Ebbinghaus, a German experimental psychologist, who performed memory tests with groups of nonsense syllables (disconnected syllables without associative connection). Ebbinghaus showed that the rate of forgetting is greatest at first, gradually diminishing until a relatively constant level of retained information is reached. Theories to explain forgetting include the concept of disuse, which proposes that forgetting occurs because stored information is not used, and that of interference, which suggests that old information interferes with information learned later and new information interferes with previously learned information.

In some instances, memory loss is an organic, physiological process. Retrograde amnesia, i.e., the failure to remember events preceding a head injury, is evidence of interrupted consolidation of memory. In anterograde amnesia, events occurring after brain damage—e.g., in head injury or alcoholism—may be forgotten. Memory loss may also result from brain cell deterioration following a series of strokes, cardiovascular disease, or Alzheimer's disease (see dementia).

Physiologically, learning involves modification of neural pathways. PET scans and related studies have shown certain parts of the brain, such as the frontal lobe of the cerebral cortex and a structure called the hippocampus, to be particularly active in recall. Computer models of brain memory are called neural networks. In a study using genetic manipulation, a mouse with enhanced memory capabilities has been produced.

See M. H. Ashcroft, Human Memory and Cognition (1989, repr. 1994); N. Cowan, Attention and Memory (1995, repr. 1998); J. McConkey, ed. The Anatomy of Memory (1996); D. L. Schacter, Searching for Memory (1996) and The Seven Sins of Memory (2001); J. A. Groegerd, Memory and Remembering (1997); A. Baddeley, Human Memory (rev. ed. 1998); R. Rupp, Committed to Memory (1998).

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