Retrieval Inhibition as an Adaptive Mechanism in Human Memory
Robert A. Bjork
University of California, Los Angeles
It is argued herein that inhibition plays an important role in higher-order as well as lower-order cognitive processes. One such form of inhibition for which there is accumulating evidence is retrieval inhibition, characterized by a loss of access to certain items that are, in fact, stored in memory. Some of that evidence is summarized in this chapter, and the possible adaptive role played by retrieval inhibition in the updating of human memory, in the ability of higher-order units in memory to act as units, and in the long-term retention of order information is outlined.
Because the word inhibition is used in a number of ways in the literature-- often simply as a descriptor for empirical effects that are the opposite of facilitation--it is important to emphasize that "inhibition" is used here in the strong sense, as in suppression; that is, as the opposite of excitation. The distinction is important because effects labelled as "inhibitory" are often the consequence of strengthening or activating incompatible or alternative responses, rather than the consequence of directly suppressing or inhibiting the response of interest. Such distinctions are discussed more fully in the final section of this essay.
In the broadest sense, we know that inhibitory processes are as important as excitatory processes in human information processing. At the neural level, inhibitory and excitatory processes work together to convey sensory information. In the ontogeny of brain development the later-developing (higher order) brain