What is peculiar here?


Vaughan Bell (here) has posted a list of Robert Bjork’s from a conference slide:

Important peculiarities of the human memory system

  • A remarkable capacity for storing information is coupled with a highly fallible retrieval process.
  • What is accessible in memory is highly dependent on the current environmental, interpersonal, emotional and body-state cues.
  • Retrieving information from memory is a dynamic process that alters the subsequent state of the system.
  • Access to competing memory representations regresses towards the earlier representation over time”

I found this an interesting list. The idea that these are peculiar to human memory strikes me as an unnecessary qualifier. I don’t know of any studies of these characteristics in any other animals: elephants for example. They may not be peculiar to humans at all. They seem to me to be the sort of characteristics that we would expect from evolutionary development and it would be surprising if they were not widespread amongst animals.

Take the second item. It makes sense that where and what you are doing should make it easier to recall memories that have something to do with that place and activity. It seems that in remembering events they are ‘tagged’ with time and place information. Why? So that they can be retrieved when they would be useful. When I want to remember something, I do not want lots of similar but useless memories, I want the one that helps me now in the current situation. How can this characteristic be thought of as a human peculiarity (or a quirk/kluge). I am sure it is not peculiar or only found in human memories.

The third item seems so reasonable how can it be peculiar. Am I expected not to learn? I want my memories to be as up-to-date in their associations with other memories and knowledge as possible. Otherwise they will eventually not be retrievable because their associations will be long gone. And if still retrievable, they would be curious fossils and not very useful. What is particularly peculiar or human-only about this.

Item one is not always so – there are people that cannot forget. They would, I am told, love to lose that ability. A really superhuman ability to remember is actually a handicap. When I was schooled 40-50 years ago I learned a great deal. Most of it is now considered dated or wrong, much of the rest is of no use or interest to me now. I do not want it competing with more recent memory. Again not peculiar and probably widespread in memories.

I cannot make any comment on the last item. It doesn’t make much sense to me and so I assume I am not understanding it.

Perhaps if I had been at the lecture I would have a different take. Perhaps Bjork explained how such characteristics might evolve. With just the slide with its title, I can only image Bjork is comparing our memories to those of some animal like the fruit-fly or with computers.


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