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Behavior without Memory

MEL's picture

 What is memory? What would life and behavior be like if humans could not remember? While learning about memory in my psychology class, I began to wonder what life would be like without memory and, therefore, what effect memory has on behavior. In this paper, I wish to highlight the importance of memory to behavior and life.


So how does memory work? Some think of memory as being stored in a single place in the brain and can therefore be "deleted" as in the fictional movie “Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind” and some think of memory as an infallible video tape. In fact, both of these ideas are inaccurate. There are three main stages in the formation and retrieval of memory: acquisition, storage, and retrieval. Any act of remembering begins with acquisition, the process of gathering information and placing it into memory. During acquisition, information is held in working memory while one is thinking about it, but lodged in long-term memory for longer intervals. The next aspect of memory is storage; the holding of information is some enduring form in the mind for later use. Evidence suggests that different elements of a single memory may be stored in different brain sites. The establishment of long-term memory depends on a memory consolidation process, during which new connections are formed among neurons. The final phase is retrieval, the point at which we draw information from storage and use it in some fashion (1).


So why does memory sometimes fail? Many cases of forgetting can be understood as the result of inadequate encoding during acquisition. Forgetting generally increases the longer the retention interval, but the causes of forgetting are still a matter of debate. One theory says that memory gradually decays while the other view argues that forgetting is interference produced by other memories. False memories may also be created. False memories are either remembering events that never happened or remembering them quite differently from the way that they happened. Although there are many types of memory failure, they can all be traced back to a failure at any one of three main stages in the formation and retrieval of memory: acquisition, storage, and retrieval (1). Seeing the many factors that influence memory, it is easy to see how fragile and unreliable memory can be.


In order to demonstrate the extreme importance of memory to behavior and life, let’s take a look at some extreme cases of memory failure. The video clip called “Life without Memory” and the article called “The Abyss” are about Clive Wearing who is a British musicologist, conductor, and keyboardist suffering from an acute and long lasting case of anterograde amnesia. In 1985, Wearing was stricken with viral encephalitis which damaged his brain and left him with a profound memory deficit (5). Wearing has lost the most important memory; the memory that relates himself to the past and projects him into the future. Despite having only a moment-to-moment consciousness, Wearing still recalls how to play the piano and conduct a choir, even though he has no recollection of having received a musical education. This is because his cerebellum, responsible for the maintenance of procedural memory, was not damaged by the virus. As soon as the music stops, however, Wearing forgets that he has just played. Wearing also records his thoughts in a diary. Page after page is filled with entries similar to the following:

7:31 AM: Now I am really, completely awake.

8:06 AM: Now I am perfectly, overwhelmingly awake.       
8:34 AM: Now I am superlatively, actually awake.

Earlier entries are usually crossed out, since he forgets having made an entry within minutes and dismisses the writings because he doesn't know how the entries were made or by whom. Wishing to record the important life event of waking up for the first time, he still writes diary entries as of 2007, more than two decades after he started them (3). Wearing’s tragic story shows us just how big an impact memory, or lack thereof, can impact our lives. Clive’s lack of memory has greatly impacted his life and has altered his behavior forever.


Another example of extreme memory failure is demonstrated in the 60 Minutes clip called “Eye Witness Testimony” and the article called “What Jennifer Saw”, which are about faulty eyewitness testimony. These clips and the article follow a rape committed in 1984 in Alabama. During the rape, the victim, Jennifer Thompson, studied her attacker in hopes that she would be able to recognize his face in a line up. After she reported the crime to the police, she made a composite of the man’s face and was given a photograph lineup of suspects. She picked an innocent suspect, Ronald Cotton, because most resembled her attacker. She then was given a live lineup and once again, confidently this time, picked Ronald Cotton. Ronald Cotton was accused and rape and was sent to jail (4). As Jennifer says,

“When I first saw the photo of him and I saw the pictures of the men that were in front of me. Ronald Cotton--he just looked exactly like the man who raped me… then when I saw him in the physical line up … it just further convinced me that Ronald Cotton was the man. He looked exactly like the man. He looked like the sketch that I had given to the police. His mannerisms, his voice, his height, his weight--it all just added up in my mind. And as the evidence started to come in, it was almost just conclusive to me that this had been the rapist. And so as time goes on, I think that my mind would always see Ronald Cotton. When I would have a nightmare, when I would re-live the night in my head, Ronald Cotton's head, his face was right there for me to see for years. So there was never any reason for me to doubt it.” (2)

Eleven years later, DNA evidence exonerated Ronald and proved that Bobby Poole, a man who looked very similar to Ronald Cotton, was Jennifer’s rapist. Although DNA evidence proved that Bobby was guilty, Jennifer, who had formed false memories with Ronald as her rapist, found it hard to accept the fact that Ronald was innocent (4). This story shows that memory is malleable and that eye witness testimony is unreliable and highly persuasive to jurors. It is very discomforting to realize how easy false memories can be formed and what impact they have on the world and the American Judicial System. After watching these clips, I began to think about times when I might have created a false memory. I realized that there have been many times when I was talking with a family member about a memory that we shared together and we didn’t remember in the same way. The idea of false memory brings up a lot of interesting questions. Had I formed a false memory about the event that I remember differently than my family member? How many false memories has my brain created? Are any memories really “true” memories, or are they all twisted or changed in some fashion by our brain? These clips really demonstrate how important true, or at least accurate, memory is. For Jennifer Thompson, the rape victim, her behavior and life were greatly affected by her false memory.


From this research it is evident that memory is an integral part of a human’s life and sense of self. If a person can’t remember what he or she did five minutes ago, then how can he or she ever have any life goals or relationships? If a person can’t create any true memories then how can he or she ever know what is real in life? It is clear that memory has an enormous effect on behavior. Without memory humans would perpetually be living in the present, never able to reflect on the past or project themselves into the future.


Works Cited

1.      Gleitman, Henry, Dan Reisberg, and James Gross. Psychology, Seventh Edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 2007. Print.

2.      "Frontline: What Jennifer Saw: Jennifer Thompson ." PBS. Web. 21 Feb. 2010. <>.

3.      Sacks, Oliver. "A Neurologist : The Abyss." The New Yorker. Web. 22 Feb. 2010. <>.

4.      "YouTube - Eyewitness Testimony Part 1." YouTube - Broadcast Yourself. Web. 20 Feb. 2010. <>.

5.      "YouTube - Life Without Memory: The Case of Clive Wearing, Part 1a." YouTube - Broadcast Yourself. Web. 21 Feb. 2010. <>.




Kaleo-Onalani Hattori-Pepee's picture


What is memory and what does it do?

Paul Grobstein's picture

"true" memories and the brain

"Are any memories really “true” memories, or are they all twisted or changed in some fashion by our brain?"
Interesting question indeed.  Maybe memories, like the sky, are brain constructions?  In which case .... ?  See also Who am I: an examination of memory and identity and my comments after.  The movie Memento is a wonderful portrayal of a memory problem, an inability to construct memory?