Memory: The Acquisition
Retention, and Retrieval
Many years ago I read a story about a beautiful young woman who, because of a terrible fear of growing old, made an interesting deal with the Devil. She agreed to sell her soul to him. In return, he promised that she would spend her old age in complete happiness. The Devil kept his promise. When the woman grew old, she became totally senile. Her old age was spent in the memories of her youth, visiting with friends who had long since died, totally oblivious of life around her. The memory of this story has stayed with me for a long time. I wonder if she would have made this deal if she had known that her happiness would be bought with senility and would consist of a life among her memories. I would like to be able to tell you who wrote this story and give you the title, so that you can read it for yourself, but I can't. I've forgotten where I read it. While I believe that I can remember accurately many of the details of the story, I can't remember where I read it or who wrote it.
How wonderful, how very wonderful the operations of time, and the changes of the human mind! ... If any one faculty of our nature may be called more wonderful than the rest, I do think it is memory.
-- Austen (quoted in Powell, 1985, p. 403)
Ulric Neisser ( 1982), a cognitive psychologist, once asked, "What do we use the past for?" (p. 13). This may seem like a strange question, but a good way to begin our quest to understand memory is by examining its function. According to Neisser, we use the past to define ourselves. If you are a fan of the soap operas, you'll recognize this as one of the favorite themes. Soap opera plots often involve memory loss (amnesia) in one of the protagonists. The usual sequence of events consists of a sudden blow to the head of a leading man or woman followed by a peculiar loss of memory in which the identity of family members is forgotten. Although this is rare in real life, it does point out the essential role of memory. It tells you who you are, where you're from, and where you're going.