Monday, September 20, 2010

Memory Studies

The other day, John Sutton drew my attention to a new journal, Memory Studies.  Among the most read articles there is one by Henry Roediger, III, and James Wertsch, entitled "Creating a New Discipline of Memory Studies".  One might think that this development challenges the crudely-stated Adams-Aizawa view that there is unlikely to be a science of memory.

But, really, I think this merely prompts a clarification.  What the creation of a journal, PhD program, undergraduate major, interdisciplinary major, interdisciplinary department shows is merely some degree of organizational unity. Organizational unity, however, is distinct from theoretical unity.  This is clear when we think about, say, the American Philosophical Association or the American Psychological Association, or even large philosophy departments or large psychology departments.  There is at least some measure of theoretical diversity within these large organizational units.

What A&A are skeptical about is the prospects of a unified theory of memory that covers all the things that currently go under the rubric of "memory studies".  Indeed, Roediger and Wertsch describe the many different methods and conceptions of memory that are to be found in the area. 
Considering just the scientific study of memory, we can list nearly a dozen different approaches. Students of animal learning and behavior have a long and honorable tradition of studying animal learning and memory, both in conditioning paradigms (e.g. classical or Pavlovian conditioning) and under more naturalistic, ethological conditions (e.g. how birds and squirrels retain and find the food they have hidden; how fish and eels, among other animals, are able to return to their spawning grounds, often after many years). Neurobiologists consider changes in the nervous system as a function of experience, particularly changes in synaptic plasticity. Cellular biologists examine these changes at the cellular level. Systems neuroscientists examine brain networks and structures that underlie various forms of memory. Behavioral neuroscientists use animal models to study the contributions of various structures (e.g. the hippocampus and surrounding tissue). Cognitive neuroscientists use techniques of brain imaging (functional magnetic resonance imaging, positron emission tomography, event-related potentials) to chart the course of neural activity while human subjects encode and remember events. Neuropsychologists study  memory disorders caused by diseases of the brain (e.g. Alzheimer’s disease) or from tumors or head injury. Cognitive psychologists study learning and memory using behavioral experiments in which people are given memory-related tasks and their performance (correct recall or recognition; speed of responding; errors in responding) is measured. Clinical psychologists consider remembering of traumatic episodes as a source of disturbance of functioning, and some therapies are intended to alleviate these traumatic memories. Forensic psychologists design experimental and other research as it pertains to issues in the legal system. Scientists interested in artificial intelligence also analyze memory as they design computer programs to exemplify intelligent behavior. The approach of cognitive science considers computer models of memory.
     All the issues sketched above fall under the general heading of scientifi c approaches, but of course they begin with different starting assumptions, use different paradigms and examine different issues. (Roediger & Wertsch, 2008, p. 10).
So, our skepticism concerns the prospects for the development of a unified theory of these diverse things that have been called "memory".  Humans can sometimes be brought together in to more or less coherent organizational wholes, but nature is often less agreeable.

As an illustration of the potential for the parting of the ways of organizational and theoretical unity, I am reminded of Gentner's history of the cognitive science society.  An image tells the story:

The cognitive science society has apparently not created a unified AI-Anthro-Ling-Neur-Phil-Psych theory of cognition.  Instead the society is apparently becoming a psychology society.

But, anyway, I'm interested to read some of the articles in Memory Studies.

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