Psychology Of External Memory Research Paper

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Memory was originally defined as the capability of humans and animals to retain past experiences (e.g., childhood events). When neurophysiologists discovered areas in the brain which enable recall and recognition, these biological structures were also designated as memory (e.g., the auditory memory in the cortex). The rise of computer technology has led to the development of electronic devices for information storage and retrieval which were likewise called memories (e.g., random access memory, RAM). Moreover, the concept of memory has been generalized to all social and artificial systems serving the purpose of information storage and retrieval: artifacts ranging from Mesopotamian cuneiform scripts and Indian quipus to printed volumes and magnetic tapes, other persons such as secretaries or prompters, as well as souvenirs and relics such as mummies, i.e., ingeniously preserved corpses.

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Information stores should be distinguished from memory aids. The former represent meanings in specific codes (e.g., phonological language, two-dimensional drawings); they distinguish meanings by modifying the encoded representations. Some representations are analogous, as in sculptures and photographs whose shapes, colors, etc., vary to permit the identification of different persons, places, or things. Other representations are symbolic, as in writing, where words, digits, etc., describe different events, addresses, and the like. In contrast, memory aids remind one of persons, events, etc., because an association with these components has been established. An example of a memory aid is a knot in a handkerchief. A person may have associated the intention to take his or her medicine with this knot. Upon seeing the handkerchief, the knot will remind the person of this intention. However, any other intention (e.g., mailing a letter) may equally become associated with the same knot. Therefore, memory aids need not change to discriminate between specific meanings.

Some external memories are unique constructions of individuals, whereas others are shared by any number of persons. From a sociological point of view, Halbwachs (1992) has interpreted the world of memorials and documents, of relics and contemporary witnesses as one collective memory, which emerges from and constitutes specific cultures. From a philosophical point of view, prints, tapes, and other artificial media can be regarded as manifestations of an exterior mind beyond individual cognition. Thus, the topics (e.g., biographies, geometry) and formats (e.g., genealogical trees, numeric systems) of these media can be analyzed as contents of the exterior mind (Koch and Kramer 1997). From a psychological point of view, external media extend and support the internal memory. Individuals may utilize extended memory systems comprising internal and external components to augment their knowledge and to increase the efficacy of their actions (Schonpflug and Esser 1995). The comparison of external and internal memories yields intriguing insights. For this purpose, it is useful to examine their functional features. When external memories supplement the internal memory, the control within the arising extended memory system becomes a crucial issue. The functional features of memories and the issue of control in extended memory systems will be considered in turn.




1. External Memories vs. Internal Memory: Functional Features

Noteworthy in the comparison of external and internal stores are the following six features: capacity, permanence, speed of encoding, speed of retrieval, usability, and availability. Generally, effectiveness and efficiency have to be rated separately. Effectiveness relates to maximal performance and is predominantly defined by the criteria of capacity, permanence, and access speed. Efficiency pertains to the tradeoff between demands and expenses, and is also determined by usability and availability. Depending on task characteristics and personal aspirations, people may refrain from maximal performance and decide to save their efforts.

Technically advanced information stores have reached high levels of effectiveness. In 2000, for example, a hard disk the size of a coin may store 35 gigabits of information, while providing access within a few milliseconds (for overviews on electronic storage devices, see Garcia-Moina et al. (1999), http://www.storage.ibm.com). However, technically advanced and highly organized information stores (e.g., public libraries, compact disks) may be difficult to use (owing to technical requirements, administrative regulations, etc.). They may even become unavailable for a user (because they are out of reach, temporarily closed, etc.).

Technically less sophisticated information stores may be inferior to more advanced devices with respect to their effectiveness. In low-performance situations, however, simple external stores are preferred because of their efficiency. An example is personal notes (Harris 1980). Notes on small sheets of paper are not very effective; they must be brief, may easily become illegible, or may get lost. Nevertheless, in some tasks a written note may suffice (e.g., for telephone numbers to be dialed immediately and only once). Compared with a hard disk, a small piece of paper may be more readily available. Furthermore, it may be more usable as people may feel more comfortable writing on and reading from paper than accessing and retrieving information from an electronic device.

Similarly, some external memories surpass internal memories in some respects, but in many situations the latter may be superior. The internal memory may possess considerable capacity and permanence. It enables a person to learn several languages, to acquire orientation in numerous towns, etc., and makes the lifelong retention of this information possible. However, personal memory is limited in capacity and permanence, especially for some disabled or elderly individuals. Distinctive features of personal memory are high usability and availability. With regard to encoding and retrieval, personal memory often functions automatically and within parts of a second (e.g., retaining a word from a conversation, recalling a name, etc.), but on other occasions people may need considerable time and effort for memorizing and remembering information. Moreover, one’s personal memory is constantly at one’s disposal without further provisions—at least in times of wakefulness and mental health.

It is debatable whether all human knowledge is fit for external storage. As stated above, external storage requires verbal, pictorial, or other forms of representation. However, there seem to exist profound insights, intuitions, and skills which cannot be stated explicitly. For instance, explanations of art may miss substantial aspects from the experience of the artist. It is equally questionable whether grammar books convey the full expertise necessary for the consummate command of a language.

2. Control In The Interaction Between Internal And External Memory

Typically, persons store and retrieve information pertaining to their current concerns, i.e., their needs, interests, and ongoing activities. They monitor their concerns and their actual state of knowledge, and then employ storage devices to supplement their knowledge in such a way that it serves their current concerns. This control process is applied to both internal and external memories (e.g., when memorizing or copying documents for a forthcoming lawsuit).

In an extended memory system, control may be transferred to other agents. Thus, other persons or technical systems (e.g., clerks, surveillance systems) initiate information storage and retrieval. The external agents monitor current concerns and actual know-ledge, and they make priority decisions about the supplementary information to be stored and retrieved. In order for such external control to be satisfactory for a person, his or her concerns and knowledge must be taken into consideration. For instance, an assistant to a managerial board should be aware of the company’s business and of what the board members already know. He or she should provide supplementary materials that support the position of the board. In the implementation of large and complex external stores (such as database systems and encyclopedias), it becomes a crucial issue to monitor and consider carefully the knowledge and the current concerns of users. Otherwise, entries may be compiled which lie outside the user’s comprehension and interests, or may even lead to misinformation and frustration. Similar dissatisfaction may result from maladapted search routines.

Another aspect of control in extended memory systems is management, i.e., the efficient distribution of information over internal and external components, followed by an efficient search and retrieval. Management presupposes the adequate representation of internal and external components and their contents. Given the simple case of a single person with a written note, the person should remember the location and the general content of the note to be able to use it when needed (e.g., a shopping list in the supermarket). With regard to more complex systems, users must memorize procedures for registration and access, routines for storage and retrieval, lists of files, etc., or else should learn what external information is needed to operate a storage device, and where and how it can be obtained.

Moreover, source knowledge should be distinguished from target knowledge. Target knowledge comprises all information related to primary concerns (e.g., biographical events, price lists). Source knowledge refers to information that is instrumental for preserving and reconstructing target knowledge (e.g., the location and content of an album, mailing addresses). Although some people exhibit a primary interest in sources of information, including their operating characteristics (e.g., archivists, Internet experts), standard users acquire source knowledge only for the purpose of improving the retention of target know-ledge.

When the acquisition of source knowledge is required for preserving target knowledge, it is of paramount importance to economize the cognitive load on the internal memory. While transfer of target information to an external store reduces the load on internal memory, utilizing the external store imposes the load of retaining source information on the internal memory. How do the benefits of saving some load by transferring target information to an external store compare with the costs of increasing the load resulting from source information? It may be uneconomical when persons memorize and store the same information externally. On the other hand, people may refrain from external storage altogether in order to obviate the load from source information.

Another strategy is to retain minimal information internally, and to transfer most information to an external store. This can be done by condensation, as in schemata of objects and macrostructures of coherent texts. Schemata are cognitive structures implying slots to be filled (e.g., the schema of a city includes slots for ‘location’, ‘size’, etc.). Schematic knowledge can economically be retained in the internal memory (e.g., ‘Kilkenny is a city’), whereas details (e.g., ‘is situated in Ireland’, ‘population of 70,000’) can be transferred to external stores. On demand, the slots can be filled in the internal memory when queries are initiated in order to retrieve information from the external store. Similarly, macrostructures form integrated accounts from texts (e.g., ‘Gandhi fought for the liberation of India’). Individuals who are asked to study a lengthy text on the history of India, and are permitted to use a database system, typically memorize such macrostructures, and enter explicating details (e.g., years, places) into the database. When tested for retention, they first recall the macrostructures, and then elaborate by relying on the database.

3. Prospects

Most certainly, technological and/organizational progress will continue to enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of external information stores. A simultaneous evolution of human brains yielding a substantial improvement of personal memories cannot be predicted for the near future. Therefore, the importance of external storage in private and professional life will continue to increase. Technical devices will complement personal memory and compensate for its deficits. On the other hand, the internal memory will remain an indispensable component enabling control and economical utilization of extended memory systems.

Bibliography:

  1. Garcia-Moina H, Ullman J, Widom J 1999 Database System Implementation. Prentice-Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJ
  2. Halbwachs M 1992 On Collective Memory. University of Chicago Press, Chicago
  3. Harris J E 1980 Memory aids people use: two interview studies. Memory and Cognition 8: 31–8
  4. Koch P, Kramer S (eds.) 1997 Schrift, Medien, Kognition. Uber die Exterioritat des Geistes [Scripture, Media, Cognition. On the Exteriority of Mind]. Stauffenburg, Tubingen, Germany
  5. Schonpflug W, Esser K B 1995 Memory and its graeculi: Metamemory and control in extended memory systems. In: Weaver Ch A, Mannes S, Fletcher Ch (eds.) Discourse Comprehension: Strategies and Processing Revisited. Erlbaum, Hillsdale, NJ, pp. 245–56

 

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