Discuss the Reliability of One Cognitive Process

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Discuss the Reliability of One Cognitive Process

Memory is an example of a cognitive process, in other words it is a process by which knowledge is gained. This essay will attempt to explain the internal processes which are involved in memory and try to determine whether or not our memories as mental process of knowing, reasoning and judging can be considered reliable sources of information. First of all, memory is defined as the process of retaining and recalling past events or experiences. Memory is not however, like a “tape recorder” and cannot provide an exact replica of what happened, but rather a “reconstruction” of it. Some aspects of memory recall are better described as ‘rumours’- memories will never return to their original clarity; faces can be switched, names deleted and words changed. Some of the reasons for memory’s slips and ambiguities have been compiled by Professor Daniel Schacter’s “seven sins of memory” these are: transience, absent-mindedness, blocking, misattribution, suggestibility, bias and persistence. These ‘sins’ show the fragility of our short and long-term memory stores and how easily things can be forgotten if, for example: left over time, went unacknowledged, or followed some emotional or traumatic event.

One of the reasons for inaccuracies or distortions in memory recall is that our memories are influenced by schemas. Schemas effectively fill in the blanks of our memories by inserting our previous knowledge or understanding of the world to complete or reconstruct memories into coherent episodes. This can be shown in Bartlett’s “War of the Ghosts” study which explains the reconstructive nature of memory and how our information processing is schema driven. In the study, Bartlett illustrated how, as people tried to make sense of something they constructed memories based on what they already knew. This is because people’s long-term memories help them to make sense of the world around them; it was described by Bartlett as “effort after meaning”. Pre-stored schemas prevent people from simply remembering information as they determine what to remember and what to discount. The findings from the study showed that when recounting the story, the participants unconsciously left out or changed some key elements in order for them to conform to their schemas. For example, the wound to the spirit was replaced with a flesh wound which fitted better with their schemas for battle injuries. Bartlett also showed how schema processes can be linked to culture as well as context, for example, research showed that people from Western cultures found the story more difficult to reproduce because of its unfamiliar content and style. Also, because they couldn’t really relate to the story or put it into the context of a real-life event, they remembered less than, say, a person from an Indian culture may have. Bartlett’s study is a good example of the unreliability of memory as we are unconscious of how and why our schemas work. They can easily disregard or alter aspects of our recall memories which may be important or essential to a piece of information.

However, memories can be accurate and reliable too; the capacity we have to remember certain things from many years ago, such as a song we learnt as a child. Memories can inform, guide and educate us about ourselves and our emotions. Unfortunately there is no correlation between believing that memory is accurate and the memory’s accuracy. We tend to remember the overall meaning of something, yet some reconstructing of the information happens when retrieving it. There are, however, benefits to our memory’s limitations. In the words of William James, “If we remembered everything we should on most occasions be as ill of as if we remembered nothing.” This is the idea that forgetting can help you learn. For example, imagine a brain which is able to remember and recall everything; when trying to remember something simple like where you put your keys it would...
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