PsycCRITIQUES - Contemporary Psychology: APA Review of Books
Memory Theory and Forgetting Outside the Laboratory
A review of
Functional Disorders of Memory
John F. Kihlstrom and Frederick J. Evans (Eds.)
Hillsdale, N.J.: Erlbaurn, 1979. 420 pp. $24.95

Reviewed by
Janet L.Lachman and Roy Lachman

The objectives of this book are eminently defensible. Its purpose is to relate functional memory disorders—both familiar, everyday phenomena and the more exotic disturbances of psychopathology—to theories of memory developed over the last two decades. The choice of the last two decades reflects the change in direction of the field during this time period; memory research and theory have undergone a major shift in emphasis. The new orientation of information processing psychology has fostered a resurgence of interest in memory for narrative prose and has revitalized interest in the work of Sir Frederic Bartlett. Indeed, the editors and many of the chapter authors explicitly acknowledge Bartlett's influence on their own views.

Relating such recent theory to nonlaboratory memory phenomena is altogether worthwhile. The test of any pretheoretical orientation is ultimately in its ability to account for phenomena outside the scientist's own making. Rigorously controlled laboratory research is, of course, an indispensable tool in scientific theory construction. But it has its dark side; it affords the temptation to research only phenomena that are amenable to explanation with the theories at hand. The result may be unwarranted optimism about how well we; are doing. Efforts like the present book provide a valuable counterweight. They refocus attention, on the natural system that is the ultimate object of study—with all its nonlaboratory complexity and recalcitrant paradoxes. In one sense, such an effort is always premature and doomed to partial failure; only when the scientific enterprise is well advanced can extensions to extralaboratory phenomena meet with truly satisfying success. In another sense, such efforts are always needed to prevent limited intermediate goals from swallowing the ultimate objectives of the science.

This collection deals with failures of memory without apparent organic origin. A really broad range of such events are considered: déjà vu and jamais vu, depersonalization, infantile amnesia, momentary forgetting, hypnotic amnesia, fugue states, and multiple personality, among others. Each author was asked to characterize the disorder, then present his or her own theory, and finally to relate these presentations to the wider, recent memory literature.

The book contains three sections. The first deals with disordered or anomalous memory in everyday life. The first chapter, by Reed, provides an interesting summary of such familiar memorial experiences as déjà vu and jamais vu, feeling of knowing, fleeting thoughts, and the like, with the suggestion that these experiences be analyzed in terms of individual differences and Bartlett's reconstruction theories. Some illustrations of how this might be accomplished would have been helpful. Two chapters deal with childhood amnesia, namely, the inability of most people to remember anything of the first five or so years of their lives. The chapter on this subject by White and Pillemer is the best piece in the book. Drawing on Bartlett's notions, they attribute childhood amnesia to a misfit between schematic (semantic) structures available to the adult, when retrieval is attempted, and the structures available to the child when the material is initially experienced and interpreted. The authors consider several possible factors to account for the discontinuity at roughly age 5; their preferred account is based on the theoretical work of Pascual-Leone. Spear presents the second account of infantile amnesia, derived from animal research. His studies are elegant and his methodological observations sophisticated. However, the albino rat is not the obvious choice of a subject in infantile amnesia research, and it is not easy to marshal a convincing defense of this research strategy. It is almost impossible to believe that Spear is studying the same thing as White and Pillemer, even though they give it the same name; and one's skepticism is buttressed by the fact that there are 141 citations in the two chapters combined, and only two appear in both. The final chapter in this section, by Schoenfield and Stones, is a thorough and interesting review of the literature on memory changes in late life.

The book's second section concerns memory disruptions in special states of consciousness. Miller and Marlin discuss memory losses following electroconvulsive shock and suggest that the effect is localized at a stage they call cataloging. Although their chapter necessarily relies on much animal data, there is considerable integration with the literature on human memory. Kihlstrom and Evans's own chapter concerns posthypnotic amnesia. The authors have studied the organization of posthypnotic recall efforts. Based on their data, they suggest that amnesic instructions (i.e., "you will forget everything that has just happened") work by disorganizing search processes. An interesting aspect of the chapter is the central paradox presented by posthypnotic amnesia—namely, that experiences during hypnosis markedly affect subsequent behavior despite their subjective inaccessibility, sometimes to the considerable puzzlement of the hypnotic subject. The parallel with infantile amnesia is tantalizing and inescapable. Adam's chapter concerns the effect of anesthetics on memory; it appears that verbal-dependent, left-hemisphere memory functions are more susceptible than verbal-independent, right-hemisphere memory functions to disruption by anesthetics (which also apparently parallel the effects of marijuana). Cohen, in the next chapter, reviews research on recall and forgetting of dreams, rejecting traditional theories of repression in favor of dream salience and interference factors. In the final chapter in this section, Swanson and Kinsbourne review methodological factors and theoretical accounts of state-dependent learning.

Until very recently, most investigations of memory involved college students performing relatively trivial tasks under sterile laboratory conditions. Although this practice may have been ideal for some lines of research, in the final analysis it has placed severe limitations on our vision of memory: first, because few laboratory paradigms adequately represent memory as it is experienced and employed in everyday life; and second, because much more remembering is observed than forgetting. In this respect the current "Bartlett revival," with its interest in memory for extended prose and other meaningful material as well as in the occurrence of systematic distortions in memory, has been a tonic for the discipline—despite the conceptual ambiguities of schema theory.

The third section involves psychopathological memory disturbances. Nemiah's chapter offers descriptions and case histories of multiple personalities, hysterical amnesia, fugue states, and dissociation. These make fascinating reading, but it is hard to imagine how recent memory research will ever explain these extraordinary occurrences. Nevertheless, they certainly involve "memory," and the subjective descriptions are strikingly reminiscent of the earlier chapters on post-hypnotic and infantile amnesia. A less exotic phenomenon is interestingly explored by Luborsky, Sackeim, and Christoph, who analyze factors associated with momentary forgetting on the part of psychotherapy patients. Erdelyi and Goldberg, in the final chapter, ably defend "repression" as a valid memory construct and present their own competent work.

How well does this collection succeed? As in any collection, the quality of the chapters is heterogeneous, ranging from mediocre to outstanding. Two significant weaknesses of the volume will limit its success at meeting the objectives its editors have set. First, too many of the chapters fail to consider the broad-based readership for which such a work will be relevant. Some of the chapters may appear somewhat superficial to insiders, while simultaneously appearing incomprehensible to outsiders. The second major failing is the lack of an overview. The editors claim to have deliberately omitted an integrative summary because the range of phenomena covered is so diverse that theoretical speculation would be premature. But an integrative summary can do much more than indulge in premature theoretical speculation. For example, the editors could identify those phenomena that yield similar subjective experiences and thus are potentially mediated by the same mechanisms. They could show how the chapters relate to each other. Such a summary would alleviate the problem created by the more technically written chapters, for the editors could have filled in the content missed by an "outsider" who gave up. Finally, the effort to write such an integrative summary might have suggested a somewhat tighter set of chapters. In spite of these failings, the book is a contribution; the sheer description of a range of memory phenomena outside the limited scope of a personal research program cannot fail to set a memory researcher's imagination in motion.

John F. Kihlstrom is associate professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin—Madison. He is coeditor with N. Cantor of Personality, Cognition, and Social Interaction (in press).

Frederick J. Evans is director of research at the Carrier Foundation in Belle Mead, New Jersey, and adjunct professor, CMDNJ—Rutgers Medical School. He has been president of APA's Division of Psychological Hypnosis. He is coeditor of the Springer Series in Behavior Therapy and Behavioral Medicine. The book under review won the 1980 Arthur K. Shapiro Award from the Society for Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis.

The reviewers are both at the University of Houston. Janet L. Lachman is associate professor of psychology and a student at Bates College of Law.

Roy Lachman is professor of psychology. The Lachrnans are coauthors of Cognitive Psychology and Information Processing: An Introduction with E. C. Butterfield.

Previously published in Contemporary Psychology: A Journal of Reviews, April 1981, Vol. 26, No. 4, 259–261
© 1981, American Psychological Association