Psychologist challenges basic assumptions of human memory theory

December 05, 1999

MADISON -- For those who get flummoxed by how-to manuals, or stymied by instructions for assembly, University of Wisconsin-Madison psychologist Arthur Glenberg has a reassuring theory. It's not all your fault. The instructions run counter to how your memory works.

Glenberg is an expert on the nuances of human memory, one of the most intriguing, but hard to understand, mysteries of the mind. More recently, Glenberg has been refining a controversial theory about memory and language that questions some basic assumptions of his field.

Glenberg's opening salvo came in 1997, when his paper was published in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences called "What Memory is For." It suggested psychologists drop the widely accepted view that human memory works like computer memory, which stores abstract symbols designed to be reproduced with verbatim accuracy.

Instead, Glenberg argued that human memory is a direct result of action: Of how the body moves and responds to its environment. Memory exists to help us walk, talk, run, drive a car, answer the phone, and all of the myriad tasks of getting along in the world.

Because these memories are designed to facilitate action, rather than verbatim reproduction, human recall is rarely totally accurate.

His theory was not universally accepted, to put it lightly. The paper generated more than two dozen written responses from peers, uncommon in the erudite world of research journals, ranging from expressions of interest to piercing critiques.

"It's actually a matter of some pride now that I got so much flak," Glenberg says. "Because now we're starting to convince the editors of some of the major journals that there's something to be learned from this."

Beyond creating an academic snit, Glenberg's ideas have strong practical applications. Glenberg is now looking at memory's role in language, and his "embodiment theory" of memory could lead to better pedagogical techniques. He has experiments designed to find whether action-oriented learning tasks can improve the teaching of technical information to adults and help children who are good oral language users but poor readers.

And it may end up helping those poor souls who bristle at the phrase, "some assembly required."

In a recent study, Glenberg taught volunteer participants how to identify landmarks using a compass. The students heard descriptions of all the different parts of a compass and map.

However, one group received only written and oral descriptions of the components, whereas another group watched video clips of a person interacting with a compass while the parts were described. The video group had no problem later when asked to read and use instructions for how to use the compass, Glenberg says, but the text-only group was utterly baffled. Tests showed they could describe parts of a compass, but couldn't put that knowledge into action.

"As in the compass experiment, understanding verbal instructions requires that those instructions 'contact' the right memories," Glenberg says. In the case of following instructions for assembly, the trouble sometimes stems from trying to draw on memories that we don't yet have.

Glenberg says the various tests of his theory -- that action is the basis of memory -- could be strong reinforcement of what teachers know intuitively: Hands-on and interactive lessons pack a bigger punch.

How memory really works is still totally up for grabs, he says, cautioning that theories on the subject draw from limited knowledge of the human mind. "For the most part, memory does a magnificent job for us," he says. "Every time you spell a word, drive a car or pick up a telephone and recognize your mother's voice, it's a wonder."
--Brian Mattmiller, 608-262-9772

University of Wisconsin-Madison

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