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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.