Wednesday, March 16

Writing, and the boundaries of memory

Whether it's a fiction writer using their life experiences as material, a biographer relying on recall of facts, or a poet noting an interesting nugget for use in a later work, memory is essential for any writer.  And yet, we know from research that for all its wonders, human memory is both limited and fallible.

One author sees the memory as a resource to be nurtured:
"By actively exploring your memory, asking imaginative questions of 'what really happened' and maybe doing some research, you will be tending to the soil, helping your memories to reveal themselves."
(Neale, 1993: 328)

Memory is major current research area in Psychology, although some basic facts were established over a hundred years ago: we have a short-term/immediate memory and a long-term memory, the short-term memory can only contain around seven items at a time (see Jacobs, 1887).  More recently, experts have tended to dismiss the simplistic idea that memory is the mind's storage area, instead viewing it as an active and flexible system.  A good example is Baddeley and Hitch's (1974) 'working memory' model.

According to the model, working memory is the part of our mind that we use for day-to-day processing, tasks and problem solving.  It is how you remember information while you are working on it.  It can achieve more than one task at once under the supervision of a processor called the central executive, which has a limited capacity, and is necessary for creative and non-routine processes.  When you divide your attention between tasks, or decide on which task to do, this is the central executive at work.  It controls the other parts, which are known as 'slave systems':

Sound and language are mainly processed in a slave system called the phonological loop, while the visuo-spatial sketchpad does routine visual processing. It is sometimes nicknamed the 'inner eye'.

Recently, researchers have suggested that there is a third slave system, the episodic buffer.  This is responsible for temporary integration of short-term processing with long-term memory storage, helping our experiences to form a coherent whole.  It helps to combine different types of information into discrete events, and also provides a link to LTM.

It will be interesting to see how research into the episodic buffer progresses, as it seems to be a key component of any task which involves recalling and making sense of past memories in a new context - a key process in any writing.

Baddeley, A.D. and Hitch, G. (1974). Working memory. In Bower, G.H. (Ed.) The Psychology of Learning and Motivation, Vol 8. London: Academic Press.
Neale, D. (2006).  Using memory.  In Anderson, L. (Ed). Creative Writing: A Workbook with Readings.  Milton Keynes: Routledge.

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