Constructive Processes in Memory

Imagine a birthday party that you had many years ago. Does the way you remember the party now reflect exactly how you felt about it at the moment it was happening? This leads us to an important question: do we understand our memories to directly and objectively reflect an event that occurred? Or perhaps can we revise our memories according to how we feel about the event in the present day? 

Constructive Processes in Memory Constructive Processes in Memory

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Contents
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    This notion brings us to constructive processes in memory.

    Constructive processes in memory, girl constructing a memory, StudySmarter

    Girl constructing a memory, freepik.com

    Constructive Processes in Memory Definition

    Constructive processes in memory are those processes that allow our memories to be influenced by the meaning that we attach to moments or events.

    When we revise a memory, it is not only the exact experience with external stimuli which we are recalling but the way we interpret and feel about it. Hence, the word 'constructive', which in this context we may understand as deriving from inferring.

    When thinking about memory as a constructive process, we can understand it as our brains shaping specific information as it is processed and retrieved from storage.

    Memory becomes an active process instead of a fixed one.

    Example of Constructive Memory

    The constructive process of memory is better understood with examples.

    For instance, we can take a cue word such as 'fluffy dog', and, upon hearing it, remember what a dog is and know that we love dogs. This can be considered a constructive process.

    Therefore, with this general knowledge that has been collected, our brains construct a complete image of what we think of when we hear the cue word.

    Study: Addis et al (2007)

    In this study, participants were scanned whilst recalling a past event or imagining the future.

    • In phase one, participants were given a cue word (such as 'dress'), and either came up with an imagined event or remembered one. They were then told to press a button when they had an event in mind, requiring on average around 7-8 seconds.
    • In phase two, the participants were required to elaborate in much detail about their event.

    What was the finding? A significant outcome of the study was that brain activity was extremely similar during recalling the past and imagining the future. This was particularly evident in phase two when participants were asked to go into much more detail.

    • This highlights the constructive nature of memory and how we build upon past events in order to create an image in the present.

    We almost fill in different parts of a memory according to different experiences and stimuli.

    Constructive and Reconstructive Processes in Memory

    The idea that memory may be thought of as a constructive process was first introduced by British Psychologist Frederic Bartlett in 1932.

    Bartlett’s (1932) Theory of Reconstructive Memory

    Bartlett proposed that our memories are not direct and accurate recordings, but are instead a combination of different factors:

    • Making past events more meaningful, as well as attempting to make them make sense.

    • Interpreting events in correspondence with our emotions.

    • Attempting to comprehend what might have happened.

    Therefore, you construct and reconstruct memories as opposed to recording them.

    Bartlett inferred that we do not store our memories in their exact form. Instead, they are more like mini scripts that we create for certain events or situations, which give us a more general understanding of what occurred. He called these scripts 'schemas'.

    A schema is a packet of knowledge concerning a place, person, or event that affects how we perceive and remember things.

    When we recall a memory, for example, going to watch a play, we refer to the schema to reconstruct the event. This may result in a subtle reconstruction of the actual happenings of the play as we only remember a base of knowledge. This process is known as active reconstruction.

    Active reconstruction is what occurs when we interpret and reconstruct events that are affected by our schema when remembering them again. This results in the memory not being a precise copy or record of the event.

    You can test out how a schema works yourself - imagine a room in your house and how it is organised. It may be easier to imagine the room in terms of the staple furniture in it, as this is your 'base' knowledge, yet remembering specific items may be reconstructed especially if their positioning changes.

    Barlett believed that schemas are formed throughout our lifetime, just as we learn more vocabulary when we grow older. They are built from experiences and can be specifically personal to us and the meaning we give to events.

    Constructive processes in memory, Memories affected by experience, StudySmarterMemories affected by experiences, freepik.com

    Case Study: Bartlett's 1932 War on Ghosts Study

    Barlett wanted to understand how schemas influenced memory in this study. The experiment aimed to see if the cultural background and past experience would affect memory.

    Method:

    • Bartlett introduced a 'Chinese Whispers' game to his students. He told an unfamiliar story to a student and they were asked to tell the same story to the next and so on, known as serial reproduction.

    • His story was called 'The War of the Ghost', which was about Native Americans travelling in boats at night to fight an opposing group with bows and arrows. They found out in the end that some of the enemy individuals were ghosts.

    Results:

    • Bartlett found that once the story has reached the last student, it had changed. He found that students tended to alter the story according to their own beliefs and to fit in with their own experiences.

    • He found that the students often changed details in the story when recalling it, for instance, instead of bows and arrows, they recalled guns. This may be affected by the fact that the students were from Western culture.

    Conclusion:

    • Bartlett concluded that memory is not a direct recall, but is constructed and reconstructed with different past experiences, present feelings and emotions in mind. He believes that interpreting information heavily relies on an understanding of what is occurring. This is how we attach meaning to stimuli.

    Strengths and Weaknesses of study:

    • The study supports the reconstructive explanation of memory and provides an interesting base of results for further research and investigation
    • The study also used a qualitative analytical approach to the question of reconstruction, which increases its reliability.
    • However, the study may lack validity because the students may have purposefully altered the story or perhaps some students were misheard in their recall and were not clear.
    • This factor makes the study difficult to interpret as a study of 'memory'

    More generally, Bartlett found that recall involved:

    • Omissions: this occurs because our schemas tend to simplify information
    • Familiarisation: we do this to change unfamiliar details into more familiar ones to help with understanding
    • Transformations: we may change details so that they appear more rational

    Evaluating Bartlett's Theory of Reconstructive Memory

    Let's examine the strengths and weaknesses of Bartlett's theory of reconstructive memory.

    Strengths

    The reconstructive model has real-world practical application and aids our understanding of how memory can be distorted in real-life scenarios. In serious circumstances, such as proving someone committed a crime with an eye-witness, it is important that obfuscations to memory are as limited as possible. This is controlled with cognitive interviews.

    Bartlett's research also holds ecological validity because he asked for stories and folk tales to be remembered by his students, sometimes even days and years after telling this. This method can be used realistically in different environments.

    Ecological validity is the extent to which the behavioural findings in a study can still be applied to different situations.

    Weaknesses

    Some have argued that Bartlett's findings are unscientific because they are based on his own interpretation of the material that was recalled. This means that his findings could have been subjective and potentially undermine his theory. There is also a lack of controls in the experiment which undermine it.

    It also becomes difficult to determine whether the memory is altered because of reconstruction or whether the individual is misleading because of an ulterior motive.

    The model also makes it nearly impossible to propose a hypothesis or prediction to which emotions and experiences affect memory.


    Constructive Processes in Memory - Key takeaways

    • Constructive processes in memory are processes which allow our memories to be influenced by the meaning that we attach to moments or events.
    • In 1932, Frederic Bartlett came up with a theory of reconstructive memory, which proposed that our memories are not direct recollections of the event but are constructed and reconstructed according to our feelings, understandings, and interpretations.
    • He believed that we have a base of knowledge that we refer to known as a schema.
    • We can use his 'War on Ghosts' case study to understand how memories can be reconstructed.
    • Bartlett found that recall can involve omissions, familiarisation, and transformations.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Constructive Processes in Memory

    What is constructive processes in psychology?

    Constructive processes in memory are those processes which allow our memories to be influenced by the meaning that we attach to moments or events. Therefore, they are 'constructed' by separate factors. 

    How memory is a constructive and reconstructive process?

    Memory is constructive and reconstructive because they are not directly recalled as they happened, but instead our brains shape specific information as it is processed and retrieved from storage. Our memories are moulded by our interpretations and feelings. 

    How are memories constructed psychology

    Memories are constructed from several factors, such as attempting to make them make sense in a certain context, interpreting events in correspondence with our emotions, or filling in details when trying to understand what occurred. This results in the memory not being a precise copy or record of the event. 

    How do we process and store memories?

    There are multiple theories exploring the process and storage of memory. Many psychologists believe memory has a three-stage process: encoding, storage, and retrieval.


    Bartlett believes that we store memories as schemas, almost mini scripts that we create for certain events and situations, which give us a general knowledge of the memory. We then construct the memory when recalling it surrounding this base knowledge, but little details may differ according to the meaning we are attaching to the memory.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    The word 'constructive' derives from...

    According to the theory of reconstructive memory, memory is...

    The Addis et al. (2007) study found that...

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