In his 1890 book The Principles of Psychology William James said this about memory,
An object which is recollected, in the proper sense of that term, is one which has been absent from consciousness altogether, and now revives anew. It is brought back, recalled, fished up, so to speak, from a reservoir in which, with countless other objects, it lay buried and lost from view. But an object of primary memory is not thus brought back; it never was lost; its date was never cut off in consciousness from that of the immediately present moment. In fact it comes to us as belonging to the rearward portion of the present space of time, and not to the genuine past. In the last chapter we saw that the portion of time which we directly intuit has a breadth of several seconds, a rearward and a forward end, and may be called the specious present. All stimuli whose first nerve-vibrations have not yet ceased seem to be conditions of our getting this feeling of the specious present. They give rise to objects which appear to the mind as events just past.
Memory proper, or secondary memory as it might be styled, is the knowledge of a former state of mind after it has already once dropped from consciousness; or rather it is the knowledge of an event, or fact, of which meantime we have not been thinking, with the additional consciousness that we have thought or experienced it before.
The first element which such a knowledge involves would seem to be the revival in the mind of an image or copy of the original event. And it is an assumption made by many writers that the revival of an image is all that is needed to constitute the memory of the original occurrence. But such a revival is obviously not a memory, whatever else it may be; it is simply a duplicate, a second event, having absolutely no connection with the first event except that it happens to resemble it.
Memory is then the feeling of belief in a peculiar complex object; but all the elements of this object may be known to other states of belief; nor is there in the particular combination of them as they appear in memory anything so peculiar as to lead us to oppose the latter to other sorts of thought as something altogether sui generis, needing a special faculty to account for it. [...] In other words, there is nothing unique in the object of memory, and no special faculty is needed to account for its formation. It is a synthesis of parts thought of as related together, perception, imagination, comparison and reasoning being analogous syntheses of parts into complex objects. The objects of any of these faculties may awaken it; the object of memory is only an object imagined in the past (usually very completely imagined there) to which the emotion of belief adheres.
In short, we make search in our memory for a forgotten idea, just as we rummage our house for a lost object. In both cases we visit what seems to us the probable neighborhood of that which we miss. We turn over the things under which, or within which, or alongside of which, it may possibly be; and if it lies near them, it soon comes to view. But these matters, in the case of a mental object sought, are nothing but its associates. The machinery of recall is thus the same as the machinery of association, and the machinery of association, as we know, is nothing but the elementary law of habit in the nerve-centres.
And this same law of habit is the machinery of retention also. Retention means liability to recall, and it means nothing more than such liability. The only proof of there being retention is that recall actually takes place. The retention of an experience is, in short, but another name for the possibility of thinking it again, or the tendency to think it again, with its past surroundings. Whatever accidental cue may turn this tendency into an actuality, the permanent ground of the tendency itself lies in the organized neural paths by which the cue calls up the experience on the proper occasion, together with its past associates, the sense that the self was there, the belief that it really happened, etc., etc., just as previously described. When the recollection is of the ‘ready’ sort, the resuscitation takes place the instant the occasion arises; when it is slow, resuscitation comes after delay. But be the recall prompt or slow, the condition which makes it possible at all (or in other words, the retention of the experience) is neither more nor less than the brain-paths which associate the experience with the occasion and cue of the recall. When slumbering, these paths are the condition of retention; when active, they are the condition of recall.
An item in memory can be characterized by two "strengths," a storage strength and a retrieval strength. The former measures, in a general way, how well learned an item is; the latter measures the current ease of access to the item in memory. The probability that an item can be recalled in response to a given cue is completely determined by its retrieval strength (and on the retrieval strength of other items in the set of items associated to that cue) and is independent of its storage strength. That is, storage strength is a latent variable that has no direct effects on performance. Items with high storage strength can have low retrieval strength, and items with low storage strength can have high retrieval strength.
The world and our brains are not stuck in Groundhog Day
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