What Do They Say About Memory?
Bill Long 12/7/08
A Critical Look at the Scholars
Several days ago I decided to write three essays on how my memory works. I likened it to a large cavernous structure, connected to a "hub" by a lot of "spokes." I said that the key to my ability to learn and recall is the patience to store things away quickly and safely, and to develop a sophisticated "trigger" or recall system, so that the things I learn are easily recalled, and they can also quite easily be stored in my capacious caverns. After writing these essays I decided to "catch up" on what the scholars are saying about memory. Two of the basic concerns in memory scholarship today are to describe the physical location in the brain of various components of memory and also the various types of memory. The latter task, then, seeks to systematize or categorize memory. I am concerned with this latter discipline in this essay.
In short, I will argue that the current categorization of memory into "implicit and explicit," with the further division of the former into "priming" and "procedural memory" with the latter divided into "episodic" and "semantic" memory owes more to the systematizing tendency of the Germanic-type mind than to any really helpful categorization of memory. In fact, I will close this essay by suggesting that one of the most important, common and delightful of human activities, love-making, can easily be put in any of the four categores. My point is that a system that can't even rightly place a most basic human activity is really a fairly worthless system.
Describing the System of Memory Today
"Modern" work on human memory may be traced to Herman Ebbinghaus' 1885 work (translated into English in 1913) Ueber das Gedaechtnis. While we don't want to forget his contributions to memory work, the really important stuff for today arises out of the 1960s and 1970s, especially in connection with the work of Dr. Endel Tulving of the Univ. of Toronto. His 1972 book, with a summary here, laid out how he came to the first important decision of dividing memory into various categories. He mentions that he didn't invent the terminology, but finally settled on the terms episodic and semantic to describe what he thought were the two divisions of the declarative (or extrinsic) memory. Declarative memory, for Tulving, had to do primarily with the ability to store facts. For Tulving, and many subsequent researchers, we store facts in two ways--either by associating them with events which produced them (the episodic memory) or through the memory of meanings, understandings and concept-based knowledge unrelated to specific experiences (semantic memory). One might characterize this kind of memory as "distilled" or "reflected-upon" episodic memory, a kind of exercise in abstraction that comes with maturity. So, we remember a lot of things which we cannot associate with any particular episode, but we still remember these things--and they are "true" for us.
The other branch of memory, which Tulving wasn't as interested in, has been called instrinsic memory. It is less the product of reflection or of the meaning of experiences as it is the result of learning to do certain repetitive tasks, such as tying our shoes or brushing our teeth. Sometimes we need to be "primed" in order to evoke these activities (such as (re)-learning to skate), but often this kind of knowledge is so deeply embedded in our consciousness that we aren't aware of it. These two types of intrinsic memory are often called "procedural memory" and "priming memory."
This is a simplification, of course, and not all scholars of memory would see the world of memory so nicely divided, but it is a competent summary, I think, of where "memory research" has been in the last 35 or so years.
My Discomfort with This Categorization
Any categorization of human activity, in order to be useful, has to, at least, be able to define some things of pretty major importance to us. Let's take love-making for a second. This isn't an "r-rated" site, but I will talk about some things that we spend a lot of time thinking about, if not exactly doing. Let's do it from the perspective a man (a little easier for me to imagine!). Where does my memory/my knowledge of how to make love to a woman reside? I am not necessarily asking where it is located in the brain, though that is a natural consequence of the question, but how it fits in to the categorization I have just taken the time to lay out. Is "love-making memory" instrinsic or extrinsic? Is it something that is so much internalized in ourselves that it isn't best characterized as "learned" or "remembered" behavior, or is it something that you have to "learn"? Well, I think I could make the case that it is more instinctual than learned, and that the pump can be "primed" very easily so that "intrinsic memory" takes over.
But then, let's look at love-making from another perspective. Almost everyone remembers his/her "first time" or some special love-making sessions that were amazing. So, I suppose that love-making memory, therefore, is episodic--there are "episodes" of it that are recalled when we think of the subject, and those episodes both give us pleasure but also tell us "how to do it." But then, let's think just a little bit more. Maybe love-making is really a function of "semantic" memory. After all, once you get good at it, you develop a style, a technique, a way of going about it, that is more "abstract" than simply "episodic."
So, I prefer to see memory as something that resists the overly facile characterization of scholars. Why not spend a lot of time trying to determine how memory actually works--and encouraging people to try to develop their memories--rather than simply trying to categorize people in ways that tend to take the marvel out of the human creature? Rushing in to quantify, characterize, systematize before the experience really is "felt" means that so much of the "thing" will be lost. An analogy to the verbal attempts to characterize mystical experience is relevant. Many mystics feel that any kind of characterization is bad or, if not bad, doesn't do justice to the experience of the Holy. Let's keep memory in a more "sacred" space, at least for now, and at least until someone comes up with a better mechanism of understanding it.