Introduction & Reconstructive Memory

Introduction & Reconstructive Memory

In terms of how our memory works, the brain functions very much like a computer. Sound, data, images and touch is information that must first be turned into a code or language that the brain can interpret. This is known as ‘encoding‘.

Once this code has been received by the brain it can be held there for a period of time. This may be only for a few seconds or it could be for an entire lifetime. This holding of information is called storage.

Of course there is no point storing something unless it can be used at a later stage. Gaining access to these stored memories is a process known as retrieval.

In short, information is collected and ‘encoded’ by the brain. It is stored in the brain for future use. The information is retrieved quickly when we need it. This flow of information can be shown in the following simple diagram.

Encoding ——> Storage ——> Retrieval


Reconstructive memory

Reconstructive memory explains why a number of people may remember the same event in different ways. Our background, beliefs and personality mean that we ‘read’ an event differently, so that we will all have our own version of what happened. Think how different an object looks if you view it from an entirely new angle.

Bartlett (1932) gave a number of people the same story to read. The story was a Native American legend called ‘The War of the Ghosts’. In this story there were spirits which appeared in a form most of us would find strange or unfamiliar. Over the weeks he asked the participants to retell the story. Bartlett found that with each retelling participants changed the sections of the story they didn’t understand, until eventually the story made sense to them.

Conclusion: Bartlett concluded that our beliefs influence the way we remember things.

Limitations of study 1: It is hard for us to know to what extent the story changed with each retelling. We have to rely on Bartlett’s judgement rather than on a clear scoring method, which would in any case have been difficult to apply.

Wynn and Logie (1998) wanted to test if our memory of familiar stories changed as much as they did with unfamiliar ones. To do this they asked a number of undergraduate students to describe their first week at university. They did this every few weeks. Wynn and Logie found that no matter how many times the students’ repeated their description, the details remained the same.

Conclusions: It was concluded that our recollection of familiar events don’t change over time.

Limitations of study 2: We don’t know how accurate the students’ first description of their first week at university was.