November 29, 2001
Our Mystifying Memory System
by George E. Riday Ph.D.
Assembly Room, A. K. Smiley Public Library
This paper selectively indicates some of
the marvelous, yet inscrutable, aspects of our ability to remember whether it be for a
moment or almost a lifetime. Various authorities in the science of memory are called upon
to express their beliefs concerning certain theories of remembering and forgetting. The
paper includes a section on mnemonics with an illustration of a popular one. A number of
amazing feats of memory are included. Many of them are possessed by individuals who are
lacking in normal intelligence. The closing section introduces the controversy over false
memory the numerous legal battles in connection with them in the area of childhood sexual
Biography of George Riday
E. Riday was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1912. Following graduation from Eastern
College and Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary he served as a minister in churches in
New Jersey. During the Second World War he served as a chaplain in the United States Army
for five years. He received his Masters degree in psychology from Wayne State
University and his Ph.D. degree from the University of Michigan. He was on the Psychology
Staff at Patton State Hospital and in private practice. He taught at San Bernardino Valley
College and was an adjunct professor at four local institutions. He is married to the
former Phyllis Hewson and has four married children, ten grandchildren and six
I suppose the reason for presenting a paper on the subject of memory is
prompted by my own age and the fact that we recently moved to a retirement community;
Plymouth Village. Almost every day at least
one resident is going to make reference to memory loss. However, memory loss is not
reserved just for the elderly. It is not uncommon to hear a young person remark, Ive forgotten where I was at the time it happened but
Theres no denying, of course , that memory impairment is usually considered to be a
brain science is bringing memory out of the shadows into the light of research. Dr. Barry Gordon,
M.D., Ph.D., heads the division of Cognitive Neurology of the Neurology Department at Johns Hopkins where he is also director of the Neuropsychology
and Memory Disorders Clinic. He
says, It may seem odd but people can have problems with their memory not only
because they have too little, but because they have too much. Often those who complain the
most dont have a problem at all. Even
stranger, those who do have the most problems
often do not think there is anything wrong.
are many beliefs about memory that most of us have heard. Which of the following do you
can lose their identities but have them return from a blow on the head.
tend to block out the memory of a traumatic experience such as sexual abuse during
you grow old your memory gets worse and there is nothing you can do about it.
is a sign that there is something wrong with your brain.
more your memory problems bother you, the more serious they are.
person can murder or seriously hurt someone and never remember it.
lose 10,000 brain cells a day and one day we just run out.
who think they have Alzheimers disease
good way to tell whether or not your memory is normal is to compare yourself with others.
10. Everything you ever learned
is locked inside your head. You just have to find the key to get it out.
lets see what Dr. Gordon has to say about these fairly common beliefs. He and other
researchers claim that none of these statements is completely true. Human memory is fickle. It is capable of
performing astounding feats and at the same time muddling
the most mundane tasks. You cannot remember whether you turned off the burner this morning
before leaving the house, yet it is relatively easy to learn and recognize thousands of
different faces. One of the most frequently
heard complaints from older patients is failing memory. People worry the first time they
forget the name of an acquaintance fearing thay may have Alzheimers disease.
According to a 1993 study 67% of the adult population claim they have experienced memory
Now we will look at the experts comments concerning
popular beliefs about memory.
1. People lose their identities but get them back from a blow on the head.
This is the stuff of Hollywood movies, not reality. A blow on the head can
disorient a person temporarily, so that he forgets his name for a brief time but rarely is
the knowledge of who you are wiped out completely
2. People tend to block out the memory of a traumatic experience such as
sexual abuse in childhood.
is much public controversy over whether emotional trauma makes you forget or remember all
too well. But scientifically, there is little disagreement. People, even children, are
likely to remember a traumatic episode. A crisis or stress situation triggers the fight or flight response, and the release of hormones such as
adrenaline. These hormones actually help preserve memories, not block them. Study after
study has shown that memories of past events are notoriously inaccurate and unreliable.
Many memory experts believe that, with encouragement some folk can easily conjure up false memories of early abuse remembering incidents that never happened.
you grow old your memory gets worse and there is nothing you can do about it.
Yes and no. Yes, slight memory
deficits are completely normal as you age. And no, you do not just have to live with them.
A few simple strategies can help keep your thinking vibrant, improve the quality of your
everyday life, and perhaps improve your memory ability.
is a sign that there is something wrong with your brain.
thankful for your ability to forget its a wonderful blessing. If we were not
able to forget we would all go crazy. Being forgetful can be viewed as having too much of
a good thing. Take the case of a man who
remembered too much and too intensely. He was a Russian who was referred to
asS. He had near-total recall. His
amazing abilities were described in 1968 by neuropsychologist, A. R. Luria in The Mind of a Mnemonist. Though the Russian forgot
very little sights, sounds, conversations,
numbers he had to work at remembering, and he could not rise above
the particulars to sort out what was meaningful to the task at hand. Everyday life was
very difficult for him. So the capacity to unconsciously filter our experiences, to
remember what is important and discard the rest is a skill to be treasured.
5. The more your memory problems bother you, the
more serious they are.
the more severe your worries about your memory the less likely you actually have a memory
problem. Aging, or an emotional state such as depression or anxiety, for example, can
cause your memory to worsen, it is true. But your fears about your memory can skyrocket under these conditions. And some persons complain
bitterly about their memory problems even though their memory is relatively normal and has
never gotten worse.
person can kill or seriously hurt someone and never remember it
law allows attorneys to present this defense. Lorene Bobbitt, the Virginia housewife who
literally emasculated her husband, testified that she had no recollection of doing so. Research does suggest that it is possible that a few people may not remember a few acts of passion very well. But
almost everyone can be expected to remember such
acts of passion all too well, reliving them over and over again in their minds.
lose 10,000 brain cells a day and one day we just run out
an adult, almost all of the regions of the brain do
not lose brain cells as you get older. What you have heard to the contrary is wrong,
contradicted by better research methods. You may
lose some nerve connections. It is possible that you can even grow new ones, or prevent
the ones you have from withering, if you exercise your mind and brain.
who think they have Alzheimers disease probably do.
typical Alzheimers patient does not worry about his or her memory -- friends and
family do. Individuals with Alzheimers disease are usually not really aware of the
severity of their problem.
good way to tell whether or not your memory is normal is to compare yourself with others.
There is a huge range of ability across the general
population, and even a single individual experiences ups and downs in memory ability over
the course of a lifetime. Between the extremes of super-memory and true memory loss lies a
very broad range of what is normal. Just as some have a talent for music or acting and
some do not, some of us are naturally gifted at remembering various kinds of things and
some are not.
10. Everything you ever learned is locked inside
your head. You just have to find the key to
get it out.
Not true. Our memories are not so much locked away as they are rearranged and
repainted. And we forget selectively. You may find the key but realize that the room you
step into has been remodeled. As you can see
there are a great many myths about memory.
In my preparation for this paper I have become increasingly amazed at the scope and complexity of
our memory system. My purpose is to describe some of the more strange tricks our memories
play on us. Here is the story of George and Charles who are identical twins. They are both
mentally retarded. At age 26 their IQs, in the range of 60 to 70, gave them intelligence
equivalent to that of an eight or ten-year-old. Yet they could perform phenomenal feats of
memory.. When asked, In what month of the year 2002 does the first of the
month fall on a Friday? George replied
without a moments hesitation, In March, February and
November. When does April 21 fall on a Sunday? continued the
questioner, and quick as a flash the answer came back, , In 1968 , 1957, 1963,
. How these mentally retarded individuals are capable of such
phenomenal memory feats is still not fully understood by the researchers in the science of
Even though the terms describing them are not the
same, it is well accepted that there are
three systems of memory. They are immediate, short-term and long-term memory. Very
briefly, immediate memory is thought by some students of memory to be the
least understood and most frequently overlooked of the three systems. In fact, most people
are not aware that they have an immediate memory system. Perhaps a helpful way to describe
this system is to explain that you use it to remember things just long enough to be able
to respond to them. When we type we use immediate memory. We look at a word, remember it
long enough to press the keys and then go on to the next word. We do not remember the word
we just typed, we simply go on to the next word. The same process is at work when we look
up a number in the telephone directory. We immediately remember it and then forget it
after dialing. As I speak you remember my words long enough to make sense out of what I am
trying to say. Paying attention is a most important ingredient in immediate memory.
Our second memory system, short-term memory, comes
into play after the information has been attended to and after information has been sorted
out as being important to remember. Unfortunately, short-term memory is very limited in
the number of items it can retain throughout its rehearsal process. For some inexplicable
reason we are unable to rehearse more than seven (give or take two) individual items
of information. Everyone can remember strings of five, six, or even seven numbers in a row
when someone reads them off but more digits create problems.
Lets look now at long-term memory. We can
define, in rather simple terms, long-term memory as the ability for information we heard or saw minutes, hours, days,
weeks, or even years before we had to remember it. Obviously it is retention of
information we have not been rehearsing continuously since the first time it entered our
brains. It is information we learned a long time ago and now want to use. Since the
information is no longer in our short-term rehearsal system, we have to search for it in
long-term memory. It is obvious that much more can be said about the structure of our
memory system but I want to get on to some situations and illustrations concerning our
In his book, The
Role of the Brain, Ronald H. Bailey reports that some research has been successful
in transferring a memory area from one persons brain to anothers
brain. Researchers have even taken memory tissue from lower animals and have chopped it up
and transplanted it in other animals to served as a dietary supplement to provide instant
learning. If this procedure has been performed on human beings I am not aware of the fact.
Some of the clues being followed by memory scientists
are easily discerned by anyone who taxes his own memory concerning how he recalls. He
quickly realizes that his visual memory, recalling images, is quite distinct from his
verbal memory, which deals with words and languages.
Memories stored as pictures tend to be the stronger of these two. An Argentinian
writer, Jorge Luis Borges tells of a man named
Fumes who remembered the shape of the
clouds in the south at dawn on the 30th of April, 1882 and he could compare
them in his recollection with the marbled grain in the design of a leather-bound book
which he has seen only once, and with the lines in a spray which an oar raised in the Rio
Negro on the eve of the battle of Quebracho.
The power of the visual memory may account for the
remarkable phenomenon of the photographic memory possessed by many children. Technically,
known as eidetic memory, or imagery, it allows them to summon up in their minds a detailed
image of something they want to remember. When
trying to recall a historic fact or the correct spelling of a word, they create a mental
image of a particular page in a textbook an simply read off what they want to know. A
teacher told me of a student of his who answered a question on a test in precisely the
wording in the textbook. When confronted with
the anomaly the student requested his teacher to turn in the textbook to a certain page
and paragraph. The student then recited verbatim the answer on the test. This remarkable
ability rarely survives puberty. Apparently
some selection process takes over as the brain matures, and makes memory more
discriminating. Instead of remembering a whole printed page, the brain remembers only the
relevant words and discards the rest. Perhaps the indiscriminate eidetic memory of
childhood explains why the recollection of earlier years are so often full of details.
They are cluttered with the charming minutiae that discerning adult minds
screen out as being unworthy of keeping.
Just as mysterious as the mechanics of recall are
those of its opposite; the unjustly maligned process of forgetting. Although the ability
to recall is much admired, the ability to forget is equally important. I suspect that
memory would be almost impossible if we were unable to forget. The mind would surely
collapse if it were required to find storage space for every experience within our
consciousness. Apparently, the mechanisms of
forgetting exist at several stages of the memory-forming process. To begin with, the brain
blots out millions of bits of incoming material
every minute of the day. This perpetual, almost entirely unconscious filtering process
enables the brain to pay attention, to stay in focus by screening out the myriad
impressions con-stantly bombarding the senses. At a social gathering, for instance,
perceptual filtering sifts through the multitude of voices and sea of faces and eliminates
most of them so they never reach the brains center of awareness. Short-term memory
evaluates the significance of incoming facts and images and disposes of those unsuitable
for permanent storage. But even when stored permanently, memories can become inaccessible
to the process of recall. Sometimes they are overlaid by newer, more significant bits of
data with stronger electrical signals. The latter phenomenon is termed the interference
theory of forgetting, and is commonly illustrated with a classic anecdote about an
absent-mended professor of ichthyology who claimed that every time he memorized the name
of a student he forgot the name of a fish. And, of course, theres the one about
Norbert Wiener, the renown MIT professor. While walking across the campus he was stopped
by a student who asked him a question. When the question was answered the professor
asked, In which direction was I walking when you stopped me? The
student indicated the direction and Professor Wiener said, Then Ive had my lunch.
In order to improve our memory system we would do well
to assist it as much as possible by organizing our input. We tend to receive information
from long-term memory according to the manner in which we have organized
it for storage. Almost anyone can recite the months of the year in about 10 seconds but
how long would it take to recall them in alphabetical order? The same 12 items, all well
known, are much harder to retrieve in
alphabetical order because they are not organized that way in memory. Can you image a telephone directory listing its
numbers in random order? Similarly, you are giving your memory system a task it will not
accept if you try to remember large amounts of information
in a haphazard manner. It is helpful to organize items you want to remember in
alphabetical order or according to categories, historical sequence, size shape, or any
other way that will make retrieval easier.
The purpose of this paper is not to present memory
aids or improvement but the mention of organizing material for longer retention does
suggest the appropriateness of mentioning the role of mnemonics.
The word mnemonics is derived from
the Greek word for memory or mindful. It is a technique or system for improving the memory
by the use of certain formulas. A familiar mnemonic is Thirty days has
September, April, June and November... (Ive
forgotten the rest of it!) I do have another
familiar one that I find helpful on
occasion when I must remember a list of items. Im sure you recall it. You begin by
taking articles that rhyme successively with
the numbers 1 to 10. For example, the word bun
rhymes with the number 1. The word shoe
rhymes with the number 2. The word tree rhymes with number 3, etc.
The list goe like this:
|ONE IS A
|TWO IS A
|THREE IS A
|FOUR IS A
|FIVE IS A
|EIGHT IS A
|NINE IS A
|TEN IS A
Let us suppose we have to remember this disparate
list: HORSE, PENCIL, RED RIBBON. BOOK, FRYING PAN, SAFETY PIN, QUART OF MILK, HUGE MAN, TENNIS RACKET, ORIENTAL RUG.
Now we create a mental image of a bun and a horse. How
about a horse eating a hamburger? For the
shoe image well put a pencil through the tongue of a shoe. Get the idea? Here is the
suggested list but , of course, you make up your own mental pictures. ONE ONE
BUN A HORSE EATING
TWO SHOE A PENCIL THRU THE SHOES TONGUE
THREE TREE A RED RIBBON AROUND
FOUR DOOR A BOOK ON THE FLOOR TO KEEP DOOR OPEN
FIVE HIVE A HIVE IN A FRYING PAN
SIX BRICKS A SAFETY PIN HOLDING BRICKS TOGETHER
SEVEN HEAVEN A
QUART OF MILK MILKY WAY IN THE HEAVENS
EIGHT GATE HUGE MAN TRYING TO GET THRU THE GATE
NINE LINE TENNIS RACKET A SERVE HIT OUT-OF-BOUNDS
TEN HEN RUG HEN LAYS EGGS ON ORIENTAL RUG
This exercise of nonsense actually does the trick. The
more ridiculous the association of the visual image to the item to be remembered the more
likely it is to be fixed in ones mind.
want to shift now to a subject that in the realm of memory has created much controversy. I refer to memory
distortion and false memory. Some of our
memories are true, some are a mixture of fact and fantasy, and some are false. Scientific
work on memory distortion has captured the attention of the wider mental health field, of
the legal profession, and of the general public. One reason for the increased interest in
the subject is , that in the last decade hundreds, if not thousands of patients have
emerged from psychotherapy accusing their fathers and mothers, their uncles and
grandfathers, their former neighbors, their former teachers and therapists of sexually
abusing them years ago. The patients often claim that they have repressed or disassociated
the memories until
various therapeutic interventions excavated the distasteful mental contents and made their
presence known. After recovering these new memories, patients have
confronted their alleged abusers, and sometimes taken them to court, forcing them to pay
sizable sums of money in damages. In many cases accused persons have found themselves
dragged through the criminal justice system, and occasionally, to their dismay, sent off
recovered-memory controversy is over the accuracy of adult claims of repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse that are often made
decades after the alleged events, for which there is no external corroboration. How can we prove that what has been brought to the
surface after many years is, in truth, reality?
is an Associated Press news release dated
August 14, 1998. CHICAGO ---
has moved to discipline a prominent psychiatrist accused of convincing a patient that she
was a cannibal who ate human-flesh meatloaf and that she also was a child molester and the
high priestess of a satanic cult. Depressed after the birth of her second son, Patricia
Burgus sought therapy from Dr. Bennett Braun. Burgus says the doctor,
through repress-memory therapy, led her to believe she possessed 300 personalities, ate
meatloaf of human flesh, sexually abused her children, and served in the cult. In
November, Burgus, 42, won a 10.6 million settlement in a lawsuit against Braun,
Rush-Presbyterian-St. Lukes Hospital to
which his practice is connected; and another psychiatrist, at the hospital, Dr. Elva
Poznaski. I began to add a few
things up and realized there was no way I could come from a little town in Iowa, be eating
2000 people a year and nobody said anything about it, Burgus told The Chicago
Illinois Department of Professional Regulation issued a complaint alleging that
Brauns techniques almost destroyed the lives of Burgus and her family. Braun, 58,
founded the International Society for the Study of Disassociation. He helped train many of
the therapists who, around the nation, treat multiple-personality disorder.
the difficult birth in 1982, Burgus saw a number of therapists before she was referred to the Chicago hospital. There, she said, she was
incorrectly diagnosed with multiple-personality disorder. She was hospitalized in 1986 and
spent more than two years in a psychiatric ward. She said she was given sedative, hypnotic
and anti-psychotic drugs in inappropriate doses. She was hypnotized frequently and
sometimes restrained with leather straps to stimulate abuse memories, her lawsuit said.
Burgus stated that Braun and Poznaski persuaded her to hospitalize her two healthy
children, then ages 4 and 5, for almost five years.
Marlene Hunter, a Canadian psychiatrist who is president of the society Braun started,
called him a very dedicated psychiatrist. She said it was a situation where a therapist has done
the best he could according to what he thought was right at the time. Braun faces a September 28 preliminary hearing on
the states complaint.
increased interest in the subject of memory and the rather extensive research that is
being done we can hope that light will be shed upon those areas in which controversy
prevails. I leave you with the anticipation that you will never forget that which is worth
remembering or remember that which is best