The capability to remember our past is perhaps one of the most remarkable and mysterious cognitive abilities we possess.

What is Remembering?

Remembering, as a general term, refers to retrieval of events from the past.

The term is used in many different senses in ordinary language. However, scientists often adopt a commonly used term for a special purpose.

Endel Tulving proposed such a special use for remembering, to refer to the special ability mentally to travel back in time and to re-experience events from the past.

The contrast term is knowing, which does not convey the sense of re-experiencing the past. Thus, a person might know she went to France as a child (though not remember the experience), but if she went to Paris 3 months ago she can probably vividly remember many experiences that occurred during the trip (as well as knowing that the trip occurred).

Remembering and knowing are thus hypothesized to represent two fundamentally different ways of accessing the past, with the former being personal and often vivid and the latter being impersonal and nearly from a third-person perspective.

One might know one visited Paris as a child just as one knows that Benjamin Franklin visited Paris — there is no warm tingle of recollection of personally experienced events in either case.

Tulving proposed that only humans can remember, in this special sense of the term, and debate swirls both around whether this hypothesis is true and whether the distinction between remembering and knowing is scientifically useful.

Memory Context of Remembering

The term remembering is used to describe memory for a variety of different types of information and skills (e.g. remembering where you left your keys, remembering that the capital of Canada is Ottawa or remembering how to ride a bike).

However, in the scientific literature on memory, it is used in a more restricted way such that it refers to the retrieval of information about a previous event or episode (Tulving, 1984).

By its very nature, remembering a previous event relies on the retrieval of associative information. Simply retrieving an item such as a word, image, color, concept or idea is not sufficient for remembering.

Rather, the item must be associated with something else such as another item, or a temporal, physical or mental context, that effectively links the item to a previous unique experience or event, so that the memory is about or is attributed to some past event (Yonelinas, 2001).

Thus, a painting may lead one to think of many complex and vivid associations, but they would simply reflect passing thoughts rather than an act of remembering unless those associations are perceived as reflecting a memory for a past experience.

The act of remembering necessarily involves an attribution or decision process, in the sense that retrieved information must be assembled and judged to be a memory for a specific event.

Retrieving an association, or even a complex set of associations (e.g. a day dream), is not suffifcient for remembering. Rather the retrieved information must be judged to be a consequence of a specific event.

The attribution process may be automatic, as when some cue triggers a vivid memory for a past event, or it may involve an effortful and time-consuming inferential process, as when trying to remember how to return to one’s hotel room.

Measuring Remembering

Essential in measuring remembering is separating it from other forms of memory such as familiarity Opens in new window. For example, an object or person might be recognized on the basis of recollection, or, when recollection fails, on the basis that the item is perceived as familiar (e.g. Mandler 1980).

Familiarity differs from recollection in the sense that it reflects quantitative memory strength information about an item, rather than qualitative or associative information about an event.

In order to separate recollection from familiarity one approach is to use associative (or relational) recognition tests in which subjects must retrieve some specified qualitative information about a particular study event, for example:

  • Was it in list 1 or list 2?
  • Where was it located?
  • Was it paired with this item? (Jacoby 1991)

An alternative approach is to rely on a subjective report method in which subjects are instructed to indicate when they remember qualitative information about a previous event, or whether they recognize items on some other basis such as familiarity or guessing (the ‘remember/know’ procedure of Tulving 1984; Gardiner 1988).

Finally, confidence response (or response bias manipulations) can be used to plot receiver operating characteristics (ROCs) in order to quantify the contribution of remembering to recognition (Yonelinas 1994).

One may be tempted to define remembering in such a way that it depends on the ability to report verbally on the subjective experience of retrieving information about a prior event (i.e. making a remember compared with a known response).

However, the inability to communicate a remember response, in nonhuman animals, or in nonlinguistic or pre-linguistic human subjects, cannot be treated as evidence that these individuals do not remember.

It may be the case that a nonlinguistic individual does not have the experience of remembering, but alternatively it may that they are simply not able to communicate that experience verbally.

If an individual can make use of the remember/know method, then one can use that method to infer that they do remember. If they cannot use that method then various other methods, such as the associative recognition and ROC methods, can be used to serve exactly the same purpose (Yonelinas 2002; Fortin et al. 2004).

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  3. Conway, L. N. (2005). Memory and the self. Journal of Memory and Language, 53, 594-628.
  4. Mandler, G. (1980). Recognizing: The judgment of previous occurrence. Psychological Review, 87, 252-71.
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