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The Four Factors Involved In Memory








Nothing is more obvious than that memory cannot return to us what has
never been given into its keeping, what has not been retained, or what
for any reason cannot be recalled. Further, if the facts given back by
memory are not recognized as belonging to our past, memory would be
incomplete. Memory, therefore, involves the following four factors: (1)
registration, (2) retention, (3) recall, (4) recognition.

REGISTRATION.--By registration we mean the learning or committing of the
matter to be remembered. On the brain side this involves producing in
the appropriate neurones the activities which, when repeated again
later, cause the fact to be recalled. It is this process that
constitutes what we call impressing the facts upon the brain.

Nothing is more fatal to good memory than partial or faulty
registration. A thing but half learned is sure to be forgotten. We
often stop in the mastery of a lesson just short of the full impression
needed for permanent retention and sure recall. We sometimes say to our
teachers, I cannot remember, when, as a matter of fact, we have never
learned the thing we seek to recall.

RETENTION.--Retention, as we have already seen, resides primarily in the
brain. It is accomplished through the law of habit working in the
neurones of the cortex. Here, as elsewhere, habit makes an activity once
performed more easy of performance each succeeding time. Through this
law a neural activity once performed tends to be repeated; or, in other
words, a fact once known in consciousness tends to be remembered. That
so large a part of our past is lost in oblivion, and out of the reach of
our memory, is probably much more largely due to a failure to recall
than to retain. We say that we have forgotten a fact or a name which
we cannot recall, try as hard as we may; yet surely all have had the
experience of a long-striven-for fact suddenly appearing in our memory
when we had given it up and no longer had use for it. It was retained
all the time, else it never could have come back at all.

An aged man of my acquaintance lay on his deathbed. In his childhood he
had first learned to speak German; but, moving with his family when he
was eight or nine years of age to an English-speaking community, he had
lost his ability to speak German, and had been unable for a third of a
century to carry on a conversation in his mother tongue. Yet during the
last days of his sickness he lost almost wholly the power to use the
English language, and spoke fluently in German. During all these years
his brain paths had retained the power to reproduce the forgotten words,
even though for so long a time the words could not be recalled. James
quotes a still more striking case of an aged woman who was seized with a
fever and, during her delirious ravings, was heard talking in Latin,
Hebrew and Greek. She herself could neither read nor write, and the
priests said she was possessed of a devil. But a physician unraveled the
mystery. When the girl was nine years of age, a pastor, who was a noted
scholar, had taken her into his home as a servant, and she had remained
there until his death. During this time she had daily heard him read
aloud from his books in these languages. Her brain had indelibly
retained the record made upon it, although for years she could not have
recalled a sentence, if, indeed, she had ever been able to do so.

RECALL.--Recall depends entirely on association. There is no way to
arrive at a certain fact or name that is eluding us except by means of
some other facts, names, or what-not so related to the missing term as
to be able to bring it into the fold. Memory arrives at any desired fact
only over a bridge of associations. It therefore follows that the more
associations set up between the fact to be remembered and related facts
already in the mind, the more certain the recall. Historical dates and
events should when learned be associated with important central dates
and events to which they naturally attach. Geographical names, places or
other information should be connected with related material already in
the mind. Scientific knowledge should form a coherent and related whole.
In short, everything that is given over to the memory for its keeping
should be linked as closely as possible to material of the same sort.
This is all to say that we should not expect our memory to retain and
reproduce isolated, unrelated facts, but should give it the advantage
of as many logical and well grounded associations as possible.

RECOGNITION.--A fact reproduced by memory but not recognized as
belonging to our past experience would impress us as a new fact. This
would mean that memory would fail to link the present to the past. Often
we are puzzled to know whether we have before met a certain person, or
on a former occasion told a certain story, or previously experienced a
certain present state of mind which seems half familiar. Such baffling
mental states are usually but instances of partial and incomplete
recognition. Recognition no longer applies to much of our knowledge; for
example, we say we remember that four times six is twenty-four, but
probably none of us can recall when and where we learned this fact--we
cannot recognize it as belonging to our past experience. So with ten
thousand other things, which we know rather than remember in the
strict sense.





Next: The Stuff Of Memory

Previous: The Nature Of Memory



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