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Module 4.9: Problems with Memory

You may pride yourself on your amazing ability to remember the birthdates and ages of all of your friends and family members, or you may be able recall vivid details of your 5th birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese's. However, all of us have at times felt frustrated, and even embarrassed, when our memories have failed us. There are several reasons why this happens.

Amnesia

Amnesia is the loss of long-term memory that occurs as the result of disease, physical trauma, or psychological trauma. Psychologist Tulving (2002) and his colleagues at the University of Toronto studied K. C. for years. K. C. suffered a traumatic head injury in a motorcycle accident and then had severe amnesia. Tulving writes:

The outstanding fact about K.C.'s mental make-up is his utter inability to remember any events, circumstances, or situations from his own life. His episodic amnesia covers his whole life, from birth to the present. The only exception is the experiences that, at any time, he has had in the last minute or two. (Tulving, 2002, p. 14)

There are two common types of amnesia (Figure 4.17), both of which are usually caused by brain trauma, such as a blow to the head:

  • Anterograde amnesia causes individuals to be unable to remember new information, although they can remember information and events from the past.
  • Retrograde amnesia causes individuals to be unable to remember some or even all of their past; it is loss of memory for events that occurred prior to the trauma

Figure 4.17 This diagram illustrates the timeline of retrograde and anterograde amnesia. Memory problems that extend back in time before the injury and prevent retrieval of information previously stored in long-term memory are known as retrograde amnesia. Conversely, memory problems that extend forward in time from the point of injury and prevent the formation of new memories are called anterograde amnesia.

Anterograde Amnesia

In cases of anterograde amnesia, the hippocampus is usually affected. This suggests that damage to the brain has resulted in the inability to transfer information from short-term to long-term memory; that is, the inability to consolidate memories.

Many people with this form of amnesia are unable to form new episodic or semantic memories, but are still able to form new procedural memories. This was true of H. M., which was discussed in Lesson 3. The brain damage caused by his surgery resulted in anterograde amnesia. H. M. would read the same magazine over and over, having no memory of ever reading it. He also could not remember people he had met after his surgery. However, when presented the same puzzle several days in a row, although he did not remember having seen the puzzle before, his speed at solving it became faster each day (because of relearning).

Retrograde Amnesia

People with retrograde amnesia have difficulty remembering episodic memories. What if you woke up in the hospital one day and there were people surrounding your bed claiming to be your spouse, your children, and your parents? The trouble is you don't recognize any of them. You were in a car accident, suffered a head injury, and now have retrograde amnesia. You don't remember anything about your life prior to waking up in the hospital.

Dig Deeper

Retrograde amnesia may sound like the stuff of Hollywood movies, and Hollywood has been fascinated with the amnesia plot for nearly a century, going all the way back to the film Garden of Lies from 1915 to more recent movies such as the Jason Bourne trilogy starring Matt Damon and 50 First Dates with Drew Barrymore.

However, for real-life sufferers of retrograde amnesia, like former NFL football player Scott Bolzan, the story is not a Hollywood movie. Bolzan fell, hit his head, and deleted 46 years of his life in an instant. He is now living with one of the most extreme cases of retrograde amnesia on record.

View the video story profiling Scott Bolzan's amnesia and his attempts to get his life back.

On the other hand, Clive Wearing, a former British musicologist, conductor, tenor, and keyboardist lacks the ability to form new memories and cannot recall past memories.

View the video story profiling Clive Wearing's anterograde and retrograde amnesia. Can you see how the cerebellum plays an important role?

Memory Construction and Reconstruction

The formulation of new memories is sometimes called construction, and the process of bringing up old memories is called reconstruction. Yet as we retrieve our memories, we also tend to alter and modify them. A memory pulled from long-term storage into short-term memory is flexible. New events can be added and we can change what we think we remember about past events, resulting in inaccuracies and distortions. People may not intend to distort facts, but it can happen in the process of retrieving old memories and combining them with new memories.

Dig Deeper

Inaccurate and False Memories

Even flashbulb memories can have decreased accuracy with the passage of time, even with very important events. For example, on at least three occasions, when asked how he heard about the terrorist attacks of 9/11, President George W. Bush responded inaccurately. In January 2002, less than 4 months after the attacks, the then sitting President Bush was asked how he heard about the attacks. He responded:

I was sitting there, and my Chief of Staff—well, first of all, when we walked into the classroom, I had seen this plane fly into the first building. There was a TV set on. And you know, I thought it was pilot error and I was amazed that anybody could make such a terrible mistake. (Greenberg, 2004, p. 2)

Contrary to what President Bush recalled, no one saw the first plane hit, except people on the ground near the twin towers. The first plane was not videotaped because it was a normal Tuesday morning in New York City, until the first plane hit.

Some people attributed Bush's wrong recall of the event to conspiracy theories. However, there is a much more benign explanation: human memory, even flashbulb memories, can be frail. In fact, memory can be so frail that we can convince a person an event happened to them, even when it did not. In studies, research participants will recall hearing a word, even though they never heard the word. For example, participants were given a list of 15 sleep-related words, but the word "sleep" was not on the list. Participants recalled hearing the word "sleep" even though they did not actually hear it. The researchers who discovered this named the theory after themselves and a fellow researcher, calling it the Deese-Roediger- McDermott paradigm.

Suggestibility

When someone witnesses a crime, that person's memory of the details of the crime is very important in catching the suspect. Because memory is so fragile, witnesses can be easily (and often accidentally) misled due to the problem of suggestibility. Suggestibility describes the effects of misinformation from external sources that leads to the creation of false memories.

In the fall of 2002, a sniper in the Washington, DC area shot people at a gas station, leaving Home Depot, and walking down the street. These attacks went on in a variety of places for over three weeks and resulted in the deaths of ten people. Police officers and the FBI worked frantically to solve the crimes, and a tip hotline was set up. Law enforcement received over 140,000 tips, which resulted in approximately 35,000 possible suspects.


Figure 4.18 In studying cases where DNA evidence has exonerated people from crimes, the Innocence Project discovered that eyewitness misidentification is the leading cause of wrongful convictions (Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University, 2009).

Most of the tips were dead ends, until a white van was spotted at the site of one of the shootings. The police chief went on national television with a picture of the white van. Afterward, several other eyewitnesses called to say that they too had seen a white van fleeing from the scene of the shooting. At the time, there were more than 70,000 white vans in the area. Police officers, as well as the general public, focused almost exclusively on white vans because they believed the eyewitnesses. Other tips were ignored. When the suspects were finally caught, they were driving a blue sedan.

As illustrated by this example, we are vulnerable to the power of suggestion, simply based on something we see on the news. Or we can claim to remember something that in fact is only a suggestion someone made. It is the suggestion that is the cause of the false memory.

Eyewitness Misidentification

Even though memory and the process of reconstruction can be fragile, police officers, prosecutors, and the courts often rely on eyewitness identification and testimony in the prosecution of criminals. However, faulty eyewitness identification and testimony can lead to wrongful convictions (Figure 4.18).

Connect the Concepts

Memory and False Convictions

How does this happen? In 1984, Jennifer Thompson, then a 22-year-old college student in North Carolina, was brutally raped at knifepoint. As she was being raped, she tried to memorize every detail of her rapist's face and physical characteristics, vowing that if she survived, she would help get him convicted. After the police were contacted, a composite sketch was made of the suspect, and Jennifer was shown six photos. She chose two, one of which was of Ronald Cotton. After looking at the photos for 4–5 minutes, she said, "Yeah. This is the one," and then she added, "I think this is the guy." When questioned about this by the detective who asked, "You're sure? Positive?" She said that it was him. Then she asked the detective if she did OK, and he reinforced her choice by telling her she did great. These kinds of unintended cues and suggestions by police officers can lead witnesses to identify the wrong suspect. The district attorney was concerned about her lack of certainty the first time, so she viewed a lineup of seven men. She said she was trying to decide between numbers 4 and 5, finally deciding that Cotton, number 5, "Looks most like him." He was 22 years old.

By the time the trial began, Jennifer Thompson had absolutely no doubt that she was raped by Ronald Cotton. She testified at the court hearing, and her testimony was compelling enough that it helped convict him. How did she go from, "I think it's the guy" and it "Looks most like him," to such certainty? Gary Wells and Deah Quinlivan (2009) assert it's suggestive police identification procedures, such as stacking lineups to make the defendant stand out, telling the witness which person to identify, and confirming witnesses choices by telling them "Good choice," or "You picked the guy."

After Cotton was convicted of the rape, he was sent to prison for life plus 50 years. After 4 years in prison, he was able to get a new trial. Jennifer Thompson once again testified against him. This time Ronald Cotton was given two life sentences. After serving 11 years in prison, DNA evidence finally demonstrated that Ronald Cotton did not commit the rape, was innocent, and had served over a decade in prison for a crime he did not commit. To learn more about Ronald Cotton and the fallibility of memory, watch these excellent Part 1 and Part 2 videos by 60 Minutes.

Ronald Cotton's story, unfortunately, is not unique. There are also people who were convicted and placed on death row, who were later exonerated. The Innocence Project is a non-profit group that works to exonerate falsely convicted people, including those convicted by eyewitness testimony. To learn more, you can visit this site.

Dig Deeper

Preserving Eyewitness Memory: The Elizabeth Smart Case

Contrast the Cotton case with what happened in the Elizabeth Smart case. When Elizabeth was 14 years old and fast asleep in her bed at home, she was abducted at knifepoint. Her nine-year-old sister, Mary Katherine, was sleeping in the same bed and watched, terrified, as her beloved older sister was abducted. Mary Katherine was the sole eyewitness to this crime and was very fearful.

In the coming weeks, the Salt Lake City police and the FBI proceeded with caution with Mary Katherine. They did not want to implant any false memories or mislead her in any way. They did not show her police line-ups or push her to do a composite sketch of the abductor. They knew if they corrupted her memory, Elizabeth might never be found. For several months, there was little or no progress on the case. Then, about 4 months after the kidnapping, Mary Katherine first recalled that she had heard the abductor's voice prior to that night (he had worked one time as a handyman at the family's home) and then she was able to name the person whose voice it was. The family contacted the press and others recognized him—after a total of nine months, the suspect was caught and Elizabeth Smart was returned to her family.

The Misinformation Effect

The misinformation effect paradigm, which holds that after exposure to incorrect information, a person may misremember the original event, was developed by cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Loftus, after extensive study of false memories as well as recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse.

According to Loftus, an eyewitness's memory of an event is very flexible due to the misinformation effect. In one example, 45 U.S. college students were shown films of car accidents and were asked to play the role of the eyewitness and asked to estimate the speed of cars using different forms of questions (Figure 4.19). They were asked, "About how fast were the cars going when they (smashed, collided, bumped, hit, contacted) each other?" The participants estimated the speed of the cars based on the verb used.

Participants who heard the word "smashed" estimated that the cars were traveling at a much higher speed than participants who heard the word "contacted." In a follow-up one week later, participants were asked if they saw any broken glass (none was shown in the accident pictures). Participants who had been in the "smashed" group were more than twice as likely to indicate that they did remember seeing glass. Loftus and Palmer demonstrated that a leading question encouraged them to not only remember the cars were going faster, but to also falsely remember that they saw broken glass.


Figure 4.19 When people are asked leading questions about an event, their memory of the event may be altered. (credit a: modification of work by Rob Young)

Controversies over Repressed and Recovered Memories

Whole events, not just words, can be falsely recalled, even when they did not happen. The idea that memories of traumatic events could be repressed has been a theme in the field of psychology, beginning with Sigmund Freud, and the controversy surrounding the idea continues today.

Recall of false autobiographical memories is called false memory syndrome. This syndrome has received a lot of publicity, particularly as it relates to memories of events that do not have independent witnesses, such as cases of abuse, when the only witnesses are often the perpetrator and the victim.

On one side of the debate are those who have recovered memories of childhood abuse years after it occurred. These researchers argue that some children's experiences have been so traumatizing and distressing that they must lock those memories away in order to lead some semblance of a normal life. They believe that repressed memories can be locked away for decades and later recalled intact through hypnosis and guided imagery techniques.

Research suggests that having no memory of childhood sexual abuse is quite common in adults. For instance, one large-scale study revealed that 59% of 450 men and women who were receiving treatment for sexual abuse that had occurred before age 18 had forgotten their experiences. Ross Cheit (2007) suggested that repressing these memories created psychological distress in adulthood. The Recovered Memory Project was created so that victims of childhood sexual abuse can recall these memories and allow the healing process to begin.

On the other side, Loftus has challenged the idea that individuals can repress memories of traumatic events from childhood, including sexual abuse, and then recover those memories years later through therapeutic techniques such as hypnosis, guided visualization, and age regression. Loftus is not saying that childhood sexual abuse doesn't happen, but she does question whether or not those memories are accurate, and she is skeptical of the questioning process used to access these memories, given that even the slightest suggestion from the therapist can lead to misinformation effects.

Ever since Loftus published her first studies on the suggestibility of eyewitness testimony in the 1970s, social scientists, police officers, therapists, and legal practitioners have been aware of the flaws in interview practices. Consequently, steps have been taken to decrease suggestibility of witnesses. One way is to modify how witnesses are questioned. When interviewers use neutral and less leading language, children more accurately recall what happened and who was involved.

Another change is in how police lineups are conducted. It's recommended that a blind photo lineup be used. This way the person administering the lineup doesn't know which photo belongs to the suspect, minimizing the possibility of giving leading cues. Additionally, judges in some states now inform jurors about the possibility of misidentification. Judges can also suppress eyewitness testimony if they deem it unreliable.

Forgetting

"I've a grand memory for forgetting," quipped Robert Louis Stevenson. Forgetting refers to loss of information from long-term memory. We all forget things, like a loved one's birthday, someone's name, or where we put our car keys. As you've come to see, memory is fragile, and forgetting can be frustrating and even embarrassing. But why do we forget? To answer this question, we will look at several perspectives on forgetting.

Encoding Failure

Sometimes memory loss happens before the actual memory process begins, which is encoding failure. We can't remember something if we never stored it in our memory in the first place. This would be like trying to find a book on your e-reader that you never actually purchased and downloaded. Often, in order to remember something, we must pay attention to the details and actively work to process the information (effortful encoding). Lots of times we don't do this.

Memory Exercise

Think of how many times in your life you've seen a penny. Can you accurately recall what the front of a U.S. penny looks like? When shown several variations of the U.S. penny, most Americans don't know which one it is (Nickerson and Adams, 1979). The reason is most likely encoding failure. Most of us never encode the details of the penny. We only encode enough information to be able to distinguish it from other coins. If we don't encode the information, then it's not in our long-term memory, so we will not be able to remember it.

Look at the pennies in the image below. Can you tell which penny is the real one?

The real penny is (a).

Memory Errors

Psychologist Daniel Schacter (2001), a well-known memory researcher, offers seven ways our memories fail us. He calls them the seven sins of memory and categorizes them into three groups: forgetting, distortion, and intrusion.

Click on the terms in the diagram below to learn more about each of Schacter's seven sins of memory. Click the "Reset" button to clear the text and start over.

Access a printable copy of this activityPDF 

Interference

Sometimes information is stored in our memory, but for some reason it is inaccessible. This is known as interference, and there are two types: proactive interference and retroactive interference (Figure 4.20). Have you ever gotten a new phone number or moved to a new address, but right after you tell people the old (and wrong) phone number or address? When the new year starts, do you find you accidentally write the previous year? These are examples of proactive interference: when old information hinders the recall of newly learned information.

Retroactive interference happens when information learned more recently hinders the recall of older information. For example, this week you are studying about Freud's Psychoanalytic Theory. Next week you study the humanistic perspective of Maslow and Rogers. Thereafter, you have trouble remembering Freud's Psychosexual Stages of Development because you can only remember Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.


Figure 4.20 Sometimes forgetting is caused by a failure to retrieve information. This can be due to interference, either retroactive or proactive.
Check Your Knowledge

True or False?

Use the questions below to test your memory about forgetting! Read each of the statements carefully and decide if they are true or false.

With anterograde amnesia, you cannot remember new information, although you can remember information and events that happened prior to your injury.



The formulation of new memories is sometimes called construction, and the process of bringing up old memories is called destruction.



Recall of false autobiographical memories is called false memory syndrome.



Forgetting refers to loss of information from short-term memory.



Proactive interference is when new information hinders the recall of recently learned information.