Human Memory: a Passive Mechanism or Dynamic System?

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Memory is a capacity that humans rely upon to relate to different events, experiences, conditions, and people. It is a vitally important process and system whereby the brain receives information from (external or internal) stimuli, stores it (encoding), and makes it available on a future occasion (retrieval). It provides continuity to people’s experiences across different periods of time.

Research is increasingly concluding that the brain works as an integrated whole rather than a series of discrete parts. In forming memory the brain passes information along the Papez circuit which involves a number of regions of the brain. Brain research indicates that memory formation produces physical changes to the way neurons are organized and possibly even the number of neurons in a process called brain plasticity. (Brace et al. 2007: 146)

Since William James (1890) first proposed theories of primary and secondary memories various information processing models have stimulated a substantial body of research. These approaches broadly conceptualize memory as a flow of information through a series of sub-systems. Information is recoded as it moves from one sub-system to the next in a fixed sequence. Beginning with sensory memory, which can itself be processed through a range of modalities, human beings hold information for a very short duration before passing the information for further processing through the remaining inter-related sub-systems of short and long term memory.

Memory might therefore be understood as a perceptually active mental process involving three key components. The mind receives, encodes, modifies, retains and retrieves information. It encodes incoming stimulus into a unique neural code that a person's brain can process. Once encoded this information is stored over a period of time and then retrieved at a later stage. In addition to the interplay of these key processes human memory consists of a range of interconnected memory systems serving different functions.

The idea that human memory was a passive process, whereby information was simply laid down and stored permanently in the brain, was therefore a pervasive one. Early cognitive psychologists conceptualized memory as a form of information processing. The internal and external environment provided stimuli through the senses which were then transformed, stored and retrieved using various reflexive processes. This was serial processing, a passive, bottom-up view viewpoint which focused on the stimulus input of information through the senses.

However this somewhat mechanistic view of the human mind assumed that mental processes follow clear sequences and takes scant regard of the potential influences such as prior learning, experiences, influences, expectations and perceptions.

The computer analogy used to understand human memory, while useful in explaining some of the similarities in how information might be processed, also helps to contrast the ways in which the human mind differs significantly.

This traditional view of information processing has however been largely challenged by research such as that conducted by Atkinson & Shiffrin; (1971, as cited in Brace et al. 2007: 142). The parallel processing model of memory (Atkinson & Shiffrin; 1971. Ibid) described human memory as a connectionist network and has been applied in understanding how information is organized in long-term memory. It provides a useful example of the information processing theory which conceptualizes cognitive processes as a series of stages. (Eysenck, 1993, as cited in Pennington, D. and Mc Laughlin, J., 2008:213)

Baddeley and Hitch (1974 as cited in Brace et al. 2007: 143) were critical of the parallel processing model’s concept of a unitary STM, in favour of a more complex, multi-component working memory. They used the term ‘working memory’ rather than short-term memory to indicate that it wasn’t just a passive store for holding data but was much more active in...
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