Professor Stan Klein Presents New Theory About Memory

December 19, 2014

The article “What Memory Is” by Psychological & Brain Sciences Professor Stanley B. Klein is the inaugural feature in the CrossWires initiative from the neuroscience journal WIREs Cognitive Science (Wiley Publishers). In CrossWires, a new, potentially controversial theory is presented and comments are invited and solicited.

Professor Klein’s article presents the “first radically (or perhaps more accurately, simply ‘the first’) new theory about human memory in almost 30 years.” (Those familiar with philosophical treatments will see clear affinities with ideas spanning Aristotelian to Russellian theories of memory).

Professor Klein summarizes the paper:

“The paper, to vastly simplify, has two main theses. The negative thesis is that the designation "memory", as used in psychology, philosophy and neuroscience, is so inclusive that the question ultimately becomes what mental experience is NOT memory. According to the “received view”, any mental state that results from the acts of encoding, storage and retrieval has a strong probability being labeled “memory" by someone in some discipline. But on these terms, few if any mental states (e.g., thought, imagination, hope, decision, inference, dreams...) are not memory or its deep footprint. At this point, it becomes unclear that the term "memory" picks out anything -- since it refers to every mental state that is not vegetative, homeostatic or genetically conceived.

The positive thesis (based on conceptual, philosophical, empirical and phenomenological analyses) is that memory is the act of recollection (i.e., episodic memory). This move plays strongly to the temporal features of recollection as the conceptual divide. Moreover, it calls into question a number of current psychological and neuroscientific presumptions – e.g., that semantic knowledge and procedural skills are acts of memory; that memory can be dispositional and unconscious; that there are systems of memory, and so forth.

The bottom line is that memory is not (as conventional wisdom would have it) the content of experience, but rather the manner in which that content is pre-reflectively experienced. And that manner is subjectively temporal. This is not to claim that memorial experience is divorced from sub-experiential processes. It depends (at least in part) on such. But memory, per se (i.e., the experienced outcome of sub-experiential processing), is not the processes themselves (by analogy – a number of activities enable the event we experience as a “Broadway Play”, but many of these activities are not the Play itself).”