Personal tools
You are here: Home 2005 Vol.37 No.2, May 2005 A Review of Human Memory
Document Actions

A Review of Human Memory

The limitations of human memory have been studied extensively at the individual level in the field of cognitive psychology, and memory phenomena at the group level have recently received attention in the field of CSCW in the context of groupware applications. There is clearly a need for CSCW researchers and developers to have an understanding of the limitations of human memory, but what resources should one use to develop the requisite background in this area? This review addresses this question by examining a recent textbook in cognitive psychology, Human Memory: An Introduction to Research, Data, and Theory (2nd Edition) by Ian Neath and Aimee Surprenant.

A Review of Human Memory

Robert Cole and Lu Xiao
School of Information Sciences and Technology
The Pennsylvania State University
{rjc157, lxx112}
Date: April 9, 2004

Human Memory: An Introduction to Research, Data, and Theory (2nd edition)
Authors: Ian Neath and Aimee Surprenant
474 pages
Publication Date: January 2003
Publisher: Wadsworth Pub Co
ISBN: 0534595626


The limitations of human memory have been studied extensively at the individual level in the field of cognitive psychology, and memory phenomena at the group level have recently received attention in the field of CSCW in the context of groupware applications. There is clearly a need for CSCW researchers and developers to have an understanding of the limitations of human memory, but what resources should one use to develop the requisite background in this area?

This review addresses this question by examining a recent textbook in cognitive psychology, Human Memory: An Introduction to Research, Data, and Theory (2nd Edition) by Ian Neath and Aimee Surprenant. In addition, CSCW literature pertaining to group memory is reviewed and the relevance of this book to the study of group memory is discussed. We argue that this book is a valuable resource for those interested in group memory, but provides insufficient background on its own.

This review is organized as follows. First, a chapter summary highlights the important topics covered in Human Memory. Next, a review of group remembering is discussed and compared with the individual-level topics discussed in Human Memory. As the research results show that there is similarity and difference in group remembering and individual memory recall, we give suggestions to instructors of memory courses on course content for students and researchers who are interested in using CSCW systems to help group remembering.

Overview of the Chapters

This book provides a comprehensive review of models and theories of human memory and the research they have informed. The first chapter frames the subject through discussion of memory metaphors, methodology, terminology, and a brief historical overview. The overview begins in antiquity with the spatial theories of Plato and progresses through the beginning of modern psychology up to the period of scientific psychology in the 19th century. Next, behaviorism, Gestalt psychology, and cognitive psychology are briefly reviewed.

Chapters Two through Four deal with explicit memory. First, the book reviews three categories of sensory memory: iconic memory, echoic memory, and odor memory. Research by George Sperling into information persistence within the visual information store known as iconic memory is reviewed and research responsible for revising Sperling's original formulation is discussed. Stimulus and information persistence are now thought to constitute distinct phenomena, with only the latter being considered a genuine form of memory. Echoic memory, the auditory analog of iconic memory, has been found to exhibit the same distinct stimulus and information persistence as iconic memory with this book focusing on the latter.

Chapter Three reviews several forms of a dominant model of memory known as the modal model. This model posits a two store view of memory in which secondary memory, or memory proper, is distinct from primary memory which is characterized by short duration and limited capacity. Various forms of the modal model are discussed, and it is noted that most modal models incorporate three assumptions inherited from the early approach of Donald Broadbent: the distinct nature of primary and secondary memory systems, the limited capacity of primary memory, and the need for rehearsal to retain information in primary memory. After discussion of variations of the modal model, limitations of the modal model are discussed. These include inability to account for distractor effects and the well-known recency and primacy effects in the serial recall curve which are better explained by the ratio rule.

Next, the book takes a detailed look at short-term memory beginning with Alan Baddeley's working memory model. This model was designed to explain four basic findings: the phonological similarity effect, effects of articulatory suppression, the irrelevant speech effect, and the word-length effect. Following discussion of the working memory model, a critique is presented in which the limitations of the working memory model are discussed, for example recent empirical findings that cast doubt upon the working memory assumption of the relationship between articulatory rehearsal and information decay. The chapter concludes with a non decay-based model of working memory capacity, the feature model in which interference is responsible for performance impairment in short-term memory.

Following the section on explicit memory, the book discusses processing-based approaches to memory. In these approaches, the type of processing is seen as more important than the underlying memory structure. Memory performance in the processing view is dependent upon how deeply processing occurs, rather than other factors such as intent to learn. After discussion of the basic levels of processing model, the transfer appropriate processing model is presented which extends the basic model by including retrieval. The rest of the chapter reviews experiments that examine the relationship between context and memory including context and state-dependent memory effects.

Next, theories of forgetting are reviewed that are divided along three lines: forgetting as failure of initial storage, forgetting as decay, and forgetting as failures of retrieval. These views are discussed through review of theories of consolidation, interference, and discrimination, respectively. Consolidation theory holds that a process of perseveration is responsible for consolidating, or storing a memory trace. This view has difficulty explaining studies in which a change in retrieval conditions is sufficient to elicit memory that was supposedly not consolidated. Interference theory attributes forgetting to three general mechanisms: response competition, altered stimulus conditions, and set (i.e. subject mindset). Discrimination theory holds that items will be recalled to the extent that they stand out from competing items during the time of retrieval.

Chapter Seven reviews theories of implicit memory, or memory without awareness. First, studies in which subjects are unaware of various aspects of learning and testing are reviewed. These include subjects being unaware that they are learning under test conditions that vary whether subjects know they are being tested and whether tests are related to a previous learning episode. Next, four theoretical accounts of implicit memory are reviewed: the activation view, the multiple memory systems view, the transfer appropriate processing view, and the bias view.

Chapter Eight examines the biological underpinnings of memory. After a brief introduction to the structure of the brain and nervous system, methods of investigation into the way memories are stored are presented divided into the two categories of invasive and non-invasive techniques. The chapter concludes with reviews of studies and theoretical accounts of amnesia and Alzheimer's disease as cases providing insight into memory structure.

Next the book examines explanations for how information is organized and retrieved from generic memory. Three models are discussed: the hierarchical model, the feature overlap model, and the spreading activation model. The hierarchical model assumes concepts are stored as few times as possible using the principle of cognitive economy. The feature overlap model distinguishes between essential, or defining features of a concept, and typical features. Spreading activation assume that when a concept is accessed increases the activation level of related concepts. After discussion of the spreading activation mode, an alternative class, compound cue models, is discussed along with theories of the organization of generic memory.

Next, the book reviews research into imagery starting with analog (structural or map-based representation) and propositional representations. Early research supporting both views is discussed along with critiques of this research. The relationship between imagery and perception and real versus imagined events are discussed through review of experiments in patients with visual deficits and reality monitoring.

Chapter Twelve examines the malleability of memory through review of research into reconstructive processes in generic memory. Studies in eyewitness memory are discussed that demonstrate both content and attribution errors. Flashbulb memory research is reviewed from the perspective of whether a special memory mechanism is necessary to explain the vividness of this special category of memory and it is argued that evidence supporting such a special mechanism is lacking. A very brief discussion of hypnosis is presented and the authors present the view that studies in hypnosis do not support the commonly held notion that hypnosis allows for the recall of information that could not otherwise be recalled. In the cases where hypnosis does produce enhanced recollection, these authors argue that other principles, such as hyperamnesia, are responsible for producing the benefit. The chapter concludes with discussion of memory illusions, recovered memories and implanted memories.

Chapter Thirteen examines theories of memory related to when events occur. The authors start with a list of well-known findings (such as telescoping and recency/primacy effects) that must be accounted for by any such theory any briefly review several models that fail in this regard. Next, two theories that can account for these findings are discussed: perturbation theory and the inference model. The chapter concludes with review of research integrating this type of memory within the larger context of autobiographical memory and memory processing in general.

The book continues with chapters on memory development and mnemonics. First, experiments in memory in infancy are reviewed along with the topic of infantile amnesia, the finding that adults cannot generally recall events before the age of three. Next, studies in memory in older children are reviewed along the lines of basic capabilities (speed of processing and immediate memory capacity), memory strategies, domain knowledge, and implicit memory. The developmental section concludes with studies of memory and aging along with theoretical explanations of aging and memory. In the chapter on mnemonics, facts and myths related to memory improvement are discussed as well as studies of subjects with exceptional memories. Reliable strategies for memory improvement include using distributed rather than massed studying, avoiding situations causing proactive or retroactive interference, using processing at study that is appropriate to the retrieval cues used at test, and simply paying attention so that information is processed in the first place.

The final chapter of the book discusses several memory models to illustrate the advantages and disadvantages of using simulation models as a tool for analyzing human memory. These include the search of associative memory (SAM) model, MINERVA2, the second version of a model named after the Roman goddess of wisdom, and the Theory of Distributed Associative Memory (TODAM).

Group Remembering –Similarity and Difference to Single Mind Memorizing

Although remembering is usually studied as a process within the individual mind, there has been increasing research interest on group remembering performance from the psychology literature (e.g., Hartwick et al., 1982; Paulus & Dzindolet, 1993; Weldon et al., 2000). Past studies show that the group remembers more than individuals when members collaborate instead of working alone to recall an event (e.g., Stephenson et al., 1983). Group recognition is also more accurate than individual recognition (Clark et al., 2000; Hinsz, 1990). Weldon and Bellinger investigated and compared memory as both an individual and a social process in studies of dyads (Weldon & Bellinger, 1997). Their results demonstrate that individual and collaborative recall revealed similar principles of memory on picture-superiority effect (the picture-superiority effect under graphic-encoding conditions was larger in collaborative recall than in individual recall in their experiments), a level-of-processing effect, and hypermnesia, suggesting that collaborative recall may be viewed as largely a product of individual recall although it is not the sum of the individual recalls.

Studies have shown that group processing does not always have a positive impact on memory recall. Weldon and Bellinger (1997) observed significant impairment in their study of collaborative recall in dyads, a phenomenon they termed collaborative inhibition. Basden et al. also observed collaborative inhibition in their study of four-member groups (Basden et al., 2001). Interacting groups are reported to produce fewer ideas than nominal groups in brainstorming studies, indicating that collaboration inhibits productivity (e.g., Bouchard & Hare, 1970). It is believed in the literature that collaboration can produce retrieval interference (e.g., Anderson & Neely, 1996) and retrieval interference attributes to collaborative inhibition as it can be disruptive for the individual’s subjective organization and retrieval strategies hearing other group members recall the material (e.g., Finlay et al., 2000).

As our memory is limited, it is crucial in knowledge work that knowledge can be embedded into cognitive artifacts so to enhance our abilities to recall and replicate successful practices. Supporting group remembering with computer technology is important especially when groups collaborate through Computer Mediated Communication (CMC), namely, computer supported collaboration. Computer Support Collaborative Work (CSCW) is an interdisciplinary domain at the intersection between computer science, telecommunication, industrial, organizational and social psychology, and sociology. A key term defined in CSCW, groupware refers to the set of software tools that support group work in a common task and provide shared interfaces for groups to work with (Johansen, 1988). Providing archived information of the collaboration process, group memory technology helps group members to rediscover or learn new things (e.g., discovering how the final decision was made or why different decisions were made), and helps outsiders of the group gain knowledge of what others have gone through in order to generate knowledge in a real collaboration case. Group memory technology plays the role of knowledge artifact in knowledge work providing a road map of the process that group members went through in generating the knowledge. It facilitates these knowledge connections by capturing the context of the process in addition to the process itself.

How groupware to be implemented to alleviate or eliminate collaboration inhibition (collaboration inhibition is termed by Weldon & Bellinger, 1997) thus enhancing group remembering performance is a question that interests not only human-computer interaction literature but also psychology literature on memory especially remembering as a social process. Its answer will contribute to not only theoretical understanding of group memory technology as artifacts that shape cognition and collaboration and of designing meaningful group memory technology in groupware in human-computer interaction paradigm, but also psychological understanding of the nature of cognition beyond the limits inherent in considering cognitive processes as the content or activity of only the individual mind in psychology paradigm.


As we have discussed above, group remembering has similar and different phenomena compared to individual memory recall. It is not uncommon in collaboration process that members need to gather to recall the process and recall the content. In computer supported collaborative work setting, group members collaborate through groupware. It is important for groupware to support the group remembering process. For groupware designers and CSCW researchers who are not familiar with memory study, we suggest this textbook as a background reading. However, this book alone will not be able to provide enough guidance for them. Taking a memory course in psychology department where the focus is still on single mind is not sufficient either. Information technologies have been advancing to today’s status where group work can be supported through technologies. We think instructors of memory course should consider the fact and start to bring studies related to group remembering to the class.


Anderson, M. C., & Neely, J. H. (1996). Interference and inhibition in memory retrieval, In E. L. Bjork & R. A. Bjork (Eds.), Memory (pp. 237–317), San Diego, CA: Academic Press.Â

 Basden, B. H., Henry, S., & Basden, D. R. (2001). Costs and benefits of collaborative remembering, Applied Cognitive Psychology, 14, pp.497-507.

Bouchard, T. J., & Jr., Hare, M. (1970). Size, performance, and potential in brainstorming groups, Journal of Applied Psychology, 54, pp.51–55.

Clark, S. E., Hori, A., Putnam, A., & Martin, T. P. (2000). Group collaboration in recognition memory, Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 26, pp.1578–1588.

Finlay, F., Hitch, G. J., & Meudell, P. R. (2000). Mutual inhibition in collaborative recall: Evidence for a retrieval-based account, Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 26, pp.1556–1567.

Hinsz, V. B. (1990). Cognitive and consensus processes in group recognition memory performance, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 59(4), pp.705–718.

Johansen, R. (1988). Groupware: Computer Support for Business Teams. The Free Press.

Paulus, P. B., & Dzindolet, M. T. (1993). Social influence processes in group brainstorming. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64, pp. 575-586.

Stephenson, G. M., Brandstätter, H., & Wagner, W. (1983). An experimental study of social performance and delay on the testimonial validity of story recall, European Journal of Social Psychology, 13, pp.175–191.

Weldon, M. S., & Bellinger, K. D. (1997). Collective memory: Collaborative and individual processes in remembering. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 23, pp.1160–1175.

Weldon, M. S., Blair, C., & Huebsch, P. D. (2000). Group Remembering: Does Social Loafing Underlie Collaborative Inhibition? Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, Vol. 26(6), pp. 1568 – 1577.


Powered by Plone CMS, the Open Source Content Management System

This site conforms to the following standards: