The goal of a theory of memory is to explain the structures (analogous to hardware) and the processes (analogous to software) that make the system work. Explaining how such a complex system works is a massive undertaking. Many attempts have taken the form of large-scale theories, which seek to deal with all major operations of the memory systems. The major theories of memory are associationism and theories from cognitive psychology and neuropsychology. The theories differ primarily in views of the retention and retrieval functions of memory. They also differ in terms of their conception of memory as active or passive.
Associationism, is the theory that memory relies on forming links or bonds between two unrelated things. This theory stems from the work of Hermann Ebbinghaus, who started the use of laboratory methods in the study of memory in the late nineteenth century. According to this theory, the ability to remember depends on establishing associations between stimuli and responses (S-R). Establishing associations depends on the frequency, recency, and saliency of their pairing. If these bonds become very strong, the subject is said to have developed a habit. Associationism also assumes the existence of internal stimuli that produce behavioral responses. These responses then become stimuli for other unobservable internal responses, thus forming chains. In this way, complex physical behaviors and mental associations can be achieved. Associationists tend to view the memory system as essentially passive, responding to environmental stimuli.
Cognitive theory emphasizes studying complex memory in the real world; it is concerned with the ecological validity of memory studies. Most of this work stems from the research of Sir Frederic C. Bartlett, who was not satisfied with laboratory emphasis on "artificial memory," but rather chose to study what he called meaningful memory. Meaningful memory, he said in his book Remembering: A Study in Experimental and Social Psychology (1932), is a person's effort to make sense of the world and to function effectively in it. Cognitive psychology recognizes subjective experiences as inescapably linked to human behavior. It centers on internal representation of past experiences and assumes that intentions, goals, and plans make a difference in what is remembered and how well it is remembered. The focus in memory research is on semantic memory—the knowledge of words, categories, concepts, and meanings located in long-term memory. People have highly complex networks of concepts, which helps account for their behavior in the real world. These networks are called schemas. New experiences and new information are viewed in light of old schemas so that they are easier to remember. Cognitive theory emphasizes how the individual processes information, and it uses the computer as its working model of memory.
Neuropsychology has contributed the third major theory of memory. Although psychology has always recognized the connection between its concerns and those of biology and medicine, the technology now available has made neuropsychological analysis of brain structure and functioning possible. Karl Lashley was an early researcher who sought to find the location of memory in the brain. He ran rats through mazes until they had learned the correct pathway. His subsequent surgical operations on experimental rats' brains failed to show localization of memory.
The search for the memory trace, the physiological change that presumably occurs as a result of learning, continued with Donald Hebb, who had assisted Lashley. The brain consists of billions of nerve cells, which are connected to thousands of other neurons. Hebb measured the electrical activity of the brain during learning, and he discovered that nerve cells fire repeatedly. He was able to show that an incoming stimulus causes patterns of neurons to become active. These cell assemblies discovered by Hebb constitute a structure for the reverberating circuits, a set of neurons firing repeatedly when information enters short-term memory. This firing seems to echo the information until it is consolidated in long-term memory. Other researchers have found chemical and physical changes associated with the synapses and in the neurons themselves during learning and when the learning is consolidated into long-term memory. The discovery of the memory trace, a dream of researchers for a long time, may become a reality. Neuropsy-
chology sees memory as a neural function controlled by electrical and chemical activity.
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