Systems of memory in the human brain

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The last 20 years have seen a bedrock change in how of what is consciously remembered. Examples of such psychologists think about memory, largely due to find- tasks include motor skill learning and repetition priming ings from neuropsychology. Until the early 1970s, psy- tasks. In a priming task, the subject is asked to identify chologists viewed the memory system of the human or complete a word or picture, and subjects do so more brain as unitary. Today, human memory is more often quickly or accurately if the stimulus was viewed a short viewed as a confederation of systems, each serving a time ago. HM shows normal motor skill learning and different function, each subserved by different neural normal priming effects (Corkin, 1984). A straightforward structures, and each capable of operating indepen- interpretation of this pattern of performance is that ex- dently (see Schacter and Tulving, 1994, for a number of plicit memory has been devastated in HM, but his ability perspectives). What used to be called simply “memory” on the other types of memory tests is unimpaired be- is today often referred to as explicit (or declarative) cause these tests tap other memory systems that are memory: memory that is associated with awareness and undamaged. with intention to recall. Notably, other forms of memory Much of the evidence supporting the multiple-system are not associated with awareness. While one may not view of memory comes from patients with focal lesions be aware that one has learned, the influence of prior like HM. The multiple-system view has been adopted, in experience will be apparent from task performance. Ini- part, because itappears that individual memory systems tially, researchers referred to all forms of unconscious can be selectively disrupted while leaving other memory memory as implicit (or procedural), but today these systems undisturbed. The conclusion that the damaged forms of memory are separated into distinct systems. structure mediates the lost memory function is not The number of memory systems is a matter of ongoing straightforward, however, because the lesion may disdebate, but there is relative agreement on the separabil- rupt fibers of passage, alternative brain structures may ity of the six systems listed in Table 1. These systems be recruited to compensate for damaged tissue, or the are differentiated in terms of their function and in terms subject may have learned to adopt different strategies of their neural substrate. It should be noted that these to complete a task that normally relies on the damaged neural substrates are not necessarily the locations in structure. Such concerns are to some extent assuaged which memory representations are stored but are areas when studies using functional imaging methods (Positron Emission Tomography or functional Magnetic Res- thought to be critical to the normal functioning of the onance Imaging) implicate the same brain structures in a system. Background




Willingham, D. B. (1997). Systems of memory in the human brain. Neuron. Cell Press.

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