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Do you think you have a good memory – kind of like a video camera? Well, this lesson about reconstructive memory may change your mind, especially when you learn how researchers have shown that our memories are not quite like the replay button on a video player.

Reconstructive Memory: An Exercise

Let’s begin this lesson with a little exercise, which involves reading and remembering the following list of words:

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  • Dream
  • Bed
  • Pillow
  • Night
  • Rest
  • Tired
  • Blanket
  • Doze
  • Slumber
  • Drowsy
  • Yawn
  • Snore

Okay, without looking back at the list, how many words came before the word ‘sleep?’ Think you’ve got it? Would you be surprised to know that the word ‘sleep’ never appeared on the list? Well, you’re not alone.Researchers use the term reconstructive memory to refer to memories that add or omit details that were not part of an original event.

If you added the word ‘sleep’ to your memory of the list, you just created a reconstructed memory.

How Do Memories Work?

In a study of false memories, conducted by H.L. Roediger III and K.B.

McDermott in 1995, participants who were shown a similar list recalled the word ‘sleep’ about half of the time. Furthermore, those who falsely recalled the word were very confident that the word appeared on the list. However, it’s no wonder that some of the participants recalled the word ‘sleep’ when it never showed up on the list.

Those that did appear, such as ‘doze’ and ‘rest,’ had a lot to do with sleep.In an earlier study on comprehension and recall, conducted by J.D. Bransford and M.

K. Johnson in 1972, participants were shown a passage that obscurely described the act of washing clothes. Participants who’d been told that the passage was actually about washing clothes remembered more of its details than those who weren’t told what the reading was about.

By activating prior knowledge and experience with washing clothes, participants were better able to interpret, and therefore, remember more details about the passage. So, what can we learn from these examples of how memory works?

How Memory Is Constructive

We often assume that memory works like a video camera. When we experience an event and then later want to remember what happened, we replay our memory like a video. However, our memory doesn’t quite work that way. Rather, our past experiences, beliefs, interpretations of the moment, and even events that happen afterward shape our memory of what actually occurred.The very act of recalling an event changes how we remember it.

For example, we may add or omit details. We may also change or exaggerate certain aspects of the event. In other words, our memory is constructive in nature, meaning that it is constructed or created rather than simply recorded.

Studies in Reconstructive Memory

Researcher Elizabeth Loftus has conducted extensive studies of reconstructive memory, particularly within the context of eyewitness testimony. For example, crime investigators are trained to avoid leading questions when talking to witnesses.

They avoid these types of suggestive questions because witnesses may integrate these references into their memory of an event;even though they never actually heard or saw them.In one of Loftus’ studies, conducted with J.C. Palmer in 1974, participants were shown films of automobile accidents and then asked questions about what had happened.

When asked how fast the cars were going when they ‘smashed’ into each other, participants gave higher estimates of speed than when asked if the cars ‘collided with’ or ‘bumped into each other.’ Furthermore, those who were asked if the cars ‘smashed’ into each other were more likely to recall evidence of broken glass, even though no broken glass was shown in the films.In a 2008 study of the behavioral consequences associated with false beliefs, Loftus and her colleagues went so far as to show that reconstructive memories could change our behaviors. During the study, researchers suggested to participants that, as children, they’d gotten sick after eating egg salad.

Although some of the participants denied such an illness ever happened, during a follow-up four months later, they’d reduced their consumption of egg salad.

Lesson Summary

Memory does not work like a video camera. Rather, our memories are constructive, meaning constructed or created rather than simply recorded, based on many things, including our past experiences, interpretations of events, events that occurred afterward, and even the act of remembering itself! Reconstructive memory refers to recollections where we add or omits details from the original event. Reconstructive memory is so powerful that it can affect an eyewitness’s testimony and change our behaviors.Studies of memory and reconstructive memory include the Roediger and McDermott 1995 study, where the participants recalled seeing the word ‘sleep’ on a list, even though it was never there.

By comparison, participants in the Bransford and Johnson 1972 study, who understood in advance that a passage was about washing clothes, used previous experience and knowledge to remember more about the text. In the Loftus and Palmer 1974 study, participants watched films about automobile accidents. Those who were asked how fast cars were going when they ‘smashed’ into each other estimated higher levels of speed than those who were asked if the cars ‘bumped’ or ‘collided.’

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