Everyday Memory

Most people endure difficulties with everyday memory or assume that other people’s short term memory is better.

As someone with Asperger syndrome (AS), the latter certainly applies to me. I have always found remembering certain information presented at the time difficult.

Much research into short-term memory focuses on “ecological validity” or relating and applying any findings to real life situations. For this reason research is widely viewed as needing to revolve around actual day-to-day scenarios.

Of course, where the information is of interest and relevance to someone with AS, retaining information is easy. It is “internally ecologically valid” or relevant to the internal, cognitive AS world.

When I find myself having to code or remember information in a work context a number of factors tend to come into play. Firstly, identifying and assimilating information necessitates ongoing concentration, something that I have always found difficult for long periods.

Secondly, I need to identify both the key or salient points of any discussion, and the wider “agendas” which may be playing out among participants, something that is not always straightforward.

Thirdly, I try to respect non-verbal language requirements such as retaining eye contact with both the person I am speaking to and other participants whom I need to glance at occasionally to acknowledge inclusion. I also try to moderate my voice to avoid a monotonous tone of delivery.

At the end of all this, I need to try and retain key facts which I usually do by making a physical note. The latter is, of course, a tried and tested method for someone with AS and one which is always useful.

However, I want – and need – to improve further in this field given its importance and so have been reading around the subject. As part of my Open University course in Psychology, I read Cognitive Psychology by Michael W Eysenck and Mark Keane in which there is a chapter on Everyday Memory. The following insight derived from it outlines some factors which I have found useful in developing my understanding of short-term memory and enhancing my ability in a commercial context.

Koriat & Goldsmith (1996), talk about the “correspondence metaphor”. What they mean by this is the correspondence or goodness of fit that exists between what an individual reports and any actual event. In other words, what (important) information or content is recollected by any individual. For me, from an AS perspective, this has often involved trying to only code information that affects and impacts upon my professional area of responsibility.

According to Neisser, three elements impact upon the effective remembering of data: i) that any information is purposeful to someone; ii) it has a personal aspect i.e. it is influenced by the individual’ s personality and related characteristics and; iii) situational demands; for example, there is a need to impress one’s audience.

Points i and ii are similar to the “correspondence metaphor”; iii though goes slightly further: I have always tended to feel a need to impress my fellow workers, possibly for self-esteem purposes and, in order to be accepted, something that, possibly, other managers would feel less required to do.

The text then looks at what Freud identified as “repression”. This is the motivation to forget anxious or anxiety provoking experiences which, he claimed, was common among all patients. For someone with AS, this is likely to more pronounced. If there is conflict, inter-personal friction or a situation where I feel less than able to speak the complete truth (where I cannot deliver a business objective or I feel I cannot be loyal for example), my cognitive processes operate less than optimally and so hinder the effective retention of material.

Different types of memory are then explored. Episodic memory is concerned with personal experiences occurring at specific times. Autobiographical memory relates to the events in one’s own life.

There can be episodic memory without autobiographical. For example, a person can remember a meeting but, if it is not significant to them personally, it will not become autobiographical. There can also be autobiographical memory without autobiographical facts “that are not accompanied by a feeling of re-experiencing or reliving the past” (Tulving). All these factors can relate to the retention of material.

Autobiographical memory relates to ones major life goals, our most powerful emotions and our personal meanings. One of the main reasons why events such as meetings are forgotten is because they largely do not contain these elements, being as they are, generally similar and undifferentiated.

On technique to enhance performance here is via the use of an event-history calendar, (Belli). Here several different themes are presented and a person is then asked to identify the month and year of all the relevant events. The process encourages respondents to appreciate the interrelatedness of various themes which then serve to cue memories both within and across these themes. I am not sure that this technique would work for me!

Berntsen distinguished between voluntary and involuntary autobiographical memories. The former are elicited by presented cues, whilst involuntary memories come to mind without preceding attempts at retrieval.

Involuntary memories are more prevalent than voluntary ones in relation to specific events. This led Bernstein to conclude that a lot of specific episodes in memory are inaccessible for voluntary retrieval, but highly accessible for involuntary recall. In other words, what is most accessible varies with the retrieval strategy deployed and this, in turn, will vary whether the memory is voluntary or involuntary.

Linton studied recall by using diary studies (recording events over a six year period) and found that forgetting depended substantially on whether an event had been tested before. If they were not tested for, the majority of events were forgotten. However, the figure dropped quite markedly if it was tested just once highlighting the benefit and importance of rehearsal in preventing forgetfulness.

There are, however, often errors in autobiographical memory. Not everyone’s autobiographical memory system operates the same way. Anxious people are thought to recall a disproportionate number of negative events for example, which may colour the way ones’ past is remembered. In other words, what we remember depends, in part, on our personality.

The chapter then moves onto “memorable memories” and why we remember some events much better than others – basically, memories that have a personal and/or emotional involvement.

Two criteria are thought to be important here: i) the self-reference effect – or how information about oneself relates to our self interest and; ii) flashbulb memories, memories about particularly pertinent events. Both are influenced by the underlying processes.

According to Rogers, any self-reference occurs via the organisation of schema – or pieces of specific information – revolving around self-knowledge that is incorporated into long-term memory structures. These are activated when self-referent judgements are made.

Flashbulb memories depend on prior knowledge that is personally important and which relates to an event in existing memory structures. They often induce an emotional reaction.

The subject of superior memory ability is then explored and the techniques used. The Russian memory expert Shereshevski learned via visual images for example.

Enscon identified three elements for high/efficient levels of memory:

i) meaningful encoding: the relating of information to existing knowledge;
ii) retrieval structure: the need for cues to be stored with any information to aid later retrieval;
iii) speed-up: extensive practice to speed up or enhance encoding and retrieval processes.

Meaningful encoding is thought to be aided by mneumonic techniques such as the “peg system” (one-is-a-bun, two-is-a-shoe etc), whilst the “keyword method” involves creating a mental image alongside a word.

Most memories are retrospective or from the past. However, a lot of everyday memory is about prospective memory – remembering something to carry out intended actions. Event based prospective memory is about “when” to do something and has a low informational content; it is relevant to daily plans and goals -“I must remember to call X next Tuesday”.

Motivation also determines whether we do things. It is easier to remember doing something enjoyable or of interest for example. Cohen believes that prospective memory should be considered in any action plans we form. So, for example, if we arrange a business trip we should relate to past events as benchmarks of key criteria.

Prospective memory depends more than retrospective memory on spontaneous memory retrieval suggesting it involves top-down or “conceptually driven processes” – those that depend on meaning or significance of stimuli rather than physical stimuli characteristics.

The last point I think is important. If something interests me I am far more likely to code and remember it. In business of course, this cannot be automatically relied upon: I have to learn to force myself to remember important information that may not particularly interest or seemingly be of any immediate relevance.

This comes back to the issue of motivation referred to above by Cohen. I find it hugely beneficial to relate information to a previous, similar event or exercise. The reason for this, I think, is because it is familiar, meaning that I can tangibly appreciate it.

Having read the above research however, I am convinced that the technique that will help me personally improve my short term memory retention is the use of rehearsal. I know that I have to work harder to retain information, but believe I can do so effectively.

Writing things down for later referral is a given of course. I am also going to incorporate my main learning practice of seeking to locate, understand and assimilate the fundamental principle or concept that underpins a subject in order to secure an initial understanding that aids the learning process before trying to retain specific details.

However, I read another useful comment in an autobiography that may also assist me. The person involved would read things at night prior to going to sleep. Apparently, this way, it subconsciously lodges in the memory bank.

I am going to give it a try!

Managing with Asperger Syndrome