Remembering what happened vs. remembering what it meant

An upcoming issue of the Psychological Bulletin will
include a review suggesting that the memories of children may be more reliable
– at least for evidential legal purposes – than the memories of adults.

The review conducted by Valerie Reyna and Chuck
Brainerd assesses over thirty studies sparked by their own earlier research on what they call the Fuzzy Trace Theory. According to that theory, people store
two different kinds of memory of experiences: memory of what happened (verbatim memory), and
memory of the meaning of what happened (gist memory). Reyna and Brainerd hypothesised that
children rely more on the former, and adults rely more on the later, and they presented results indicating that this makes adults more prone to certain sorts of ‘false
memory’, since what an event meant to someone may be inconsistent with what
actually happened. In the upcoming review,
Reyna and Brainerd will claim that the slough of publications triggered
by their initial research backs up these hypotheses.

Suppose that Reyna and Brainerd are right. What
would follow?

One possible implication is that the court system
should be revised so that testimony from children is given greater weight than
it is presently. Several worries might surround this suggestion. Even if
children are less susceptible to false memories than adults, they may
nevertheless be less reliable witnesses. False memories are not the only source
of innacruate testimony – old fashioned lying is also obviously relevant. Moreover,
even if children are ordinarily less susceptible to false memories than adults,
the unique pressures of the legal system may offset this result. Perhaps, for
example, investigators or litigators could more easily induce false memories in
children by ‘training’ or exerting pressure on child witnesses. (Indeed, Reyna
and Brainerd have themselves published research suggesting that merely testing
a child’s memory can induce future false memories.)
But of course, these concerns are not new, whereas Reyna and Brainerd’s
findings are. Those findings thus give us reasons to think that, to the extent
that we have been influenced solely by the old concerns, we may have been underestimating
the reliability of childhood testimony.

Outside of the legal setting, there are further
interesting implications. Adults may rely heavily on gist
memory not because they have lost the ability to form verbatim memories, but because gist memory is generally more useful.
However there may be settings in which it would be useful for adults to switch
back to verbatim memory: for example, when attempting to rote learn
facts, when conducting observational scientific studies, when playing certain
kinds of games, or simply when we know that the meanings we attach to our
memories are likely to be false.

It seems possible that further work in this area may
lead to a fuller understanding of the psychological and/or neural bases of gist
and verbatim memory, and, speculating further into the future, this may
ultimately lead to the development of techniques for adults to switch between
the different types of memory as the circumstances require. To date, work on
the ethics of memory enhancement has focussed largely on possible ways of increasing the ability to store memory. But
perhaps the real enhancement would be an improved ability to switch between
different modes of memory.


Brainerd CJ, Reyna VF, ‘Mere Memory Testing Creates False Memories in Children’ Developmental Psychology 1996;32(3):467

Brainerd CJ, Reyna VF, Forrest TJ Are Young Children Susceptible to the False-Memory

Medical News Today, ‘A
Child’s Memory May Be More Reliable Than An Adults’ In Court Cases’
, 14 March

National Science Foundation, ‘Memory on Trial’, 6
March 2008

Reyna VF, Brainerd CJ, ‘Fuzzy Trace Theory: ‘An
Interim Synthesis’’, Learning and
Individual Differences

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2 Responses to Remembering what happened vs. remembering what it meant

  • stephen says:

    There seems to be an interesting conceptual question arising from these categories. ‘Verbatim’ means ‘word for word’. Yet what is being remembered is often not words, but events, and in particular our own and others’ actions. The act of describing events that we recall itself involves interpretation and selection. The language of action comes already loaded with notions of causes, intentions or motives. So can people (children or adults) describe events, and especially human actions and interactions, without saying what those events mean? I’m not sure that they can entirely.

    (This may be so even in physical sciences: the idea that we can describe only and exactly what we perceive turns out to be a chimera when pursued to its ultimate end, as attempted by logical positivism.)

    However, there is such a thing as altering history to fit our prejudices, and it seems plausible that we tend to do that more as our patterns of thinking become more fixed.

    Are verbatim and gist memories supposed to be categorical or a continuum?

  • Tom Douglas says:

    Thanks for your comment Stephen. I agree that ‘verbatim’ is a strange term for the sort of memory in question here. You also make a good point about the role for interpretation in converting experiential memory into a linguistic form – though to clarify my original post, Reyna and Brainerd’s claim was never that children aren’t insusceptible to all forms of false memory.

    From my reading on this, it’s not entirely clear whether the verbatim-gist distinction is meant to be categorical or continuous, but I certainly haven’t read everything that’s been written on it. Reyna and Brainerd mostly seem to speak of verbatim and gist as discrete kinds of memory, however this may just be a simplifying assumption: they do note (on p26 of the 1995 paper that I reference) that they believe there is a continuum between vertbatim and gist representations – this suggests they may also believe there is a continuum in the underlying memory processes. They also allow that some memories are a mixture of verbatim and gist, but this seems consistent with a categorical distinction – the thought may just be that sometimes we rely on both kinds of memory at the same time and of the same experience.


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