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An Interview in The Thinker


Interview with John F. Kihlstrom, University of California, Berkeley.  Conducted by Edward M. Hubbard Published in The Thinker, A Journal of Cognitive Science at UC Berkeley Vol. 1, Issue 1, Spring 1999.

How would you define memory?

Memory refers to representations of experience and knowledge, stored in the mind -- mental representations of the past which are implemented somehow in the brain, of course. Pardon the dualism, but I can't control myself.

Anyway, this definition covers the major categories of memory: procedural (mental representations of motor and cognitive skills) versus declarative (factual), and, within the declarative category, episodic (representations of personal experiences) and semantic (representations of context-free world-knowledge, including abstract knowledge of oneself). It also covers explicit and implicit expressions of episodic memory.

Of course, things other than minds store and use memories. A metal bar, once bent, is easier to bend again in the same direction. That's a sort of memory. But I'm assuming that we're talking about minds here.

What was it that got you interested in memory research?

It was an accident, though in retrospect it was an accident that was waiting to happen. When I was an undergraduate I got interested in hypnosis research, and when I went to graduate school I continued those interests. I went to Penn to work with Martin Orne, a distinguished hypnosis researcher who was a psychiatrist as well as a psychologist, and his associate, Fred Evans, suggested that I look at some aspects of posthypnotic amnesia -- the difficulty that some hypnotized subjects have in remembering the events and experiences which transpired while they were hypnotized. Some hypnotized subjects, despite having received a suggestion for amnesia, recall their hypnotic experiences anyway. Among these
subjects, Evans and I found that those subjects who were relatively highly hypnotizable recalled what they could recall out of chronological order, whereas those who were relatively insusceptible to hypnosis recalled the items pretty much in straight chronological sequence. We concluded that temporal disorganization was an aspect of partial posthypnotic amnesia.  Organization theory was very big in those days -- this was the early 1970s -- and so I was off as a memory researcher. A later series of experiments on posthypnotic amnesia, published in 1980, was among the first to document what we now call a dissociation between explicit and implicit memory (though we didn't call it that then -- we didn't know _what_ to call it!).  After I moved to the University of Arizona, I began to collaborate with Dan
Schacter, who was then a faculty colleague, and we were involved in all sorts of interesting projects, mostly having to do with implicit memory -- in aging, in surgical anesthesia, in sleep.

I say that my involvement in memory research was an accident, because Fred Evans put me on a problem that I hadn't thought about before, but I also said that it was an accident that was waiting to happen. You see, I wasn't trained as a cognitive psychologist. Cognitive psychology hardly existed
as a field when I was in graduate school. My graduate training was in personality and experimental psychopathology (I have a clinical psychology internship, though I have never practiced professionally), and I have a longstanding interest in things like the self-concept and identity. My first academic jobs were in personality and social psychology, and I am very interested in problems of social cognition. Somewhere Saul Bellow wrote that "Memory is life". Our memory of the past helps us to make sense
of who we are, and to shape our futures. Memory and the self are intrinsically related. So even if I hadn't been interested in hypnosis, and worked with Orne and Evans, I'm pretty sure that I'd be doing memory
research now.

Tell us a little bit about your current research.

Well, my interests are very broad, and so we do a lot of things -- some in collaboration with colleagues on other campuses. I still do hypnosis research, and I'm still interested in things like posthypnotic amnesia. I
retain an interest in memory as it is affected by other altered states of consciousness, such as sleep and anesthesia. For a while I was very involved in the debate over "recovered memories" of early trauma -- I am very critical of the argument that traumatic memories obey different laws than nontraumatic ones, and I am very critical of the practice of recovered memory therapy. I've said pretty much all I have to say about that issue, but I retain an interest in the functional amnesias associated with the dissociative disorders, such as multiple personality. Basically, I am primarily interested in unconscious mental life, and in extending the distinction between explicit and implicit memory to other domains, such as perception, thought, and even emotion and motivation.

I am very interested in the self as a memory structure -- as a mental representation of what one's own knowledge and experience. Recently, largely as a result of discussions with my spouse, Lucy Canter Kihlstrom, who does research on health services at the UCB Institute for Personality and Social Research, I have become interested in people's mental representations of health and disease, of health-care providers and of the health-care system generally, and how these representations -- you could call them semantic memories, which is what they are -- interact with people's autobiographical memories of specific illness episodes, affect their behavior in the domains of health and illness -- for example, adherence to medical prescriptions.

I don't do much on the biological side of memory, but along with Stan Klein, a former graduate student now on the faculty as UCSB, I have begun to promote what we are calling, by analogy to cognitive neuropsychology, a _social_ neuropsychology. Basically, we argue that theory in personality and social psychology can be advanced by looking at brain-damaged individuals, just as cognitive psychology has been. Notice, however, that I use the term "neuropsychology", not "neuroscience". I'm not interested
in what's going on at the molecular and cellular level. As a psychologist, I'm interested in individual mind and behavior, and it's at that level that I focus my analyses.

As a background for our more exotic research, there are a number of problems in "normal" memory that interest me greatly. I retain an interest in the organization of memory -- I might go down in history as the last organization theorist. I am very interested in recollective experience, in the phenomenal qualities associated with remembering the past, and how these qualities relate to the information represented in memory. I am interested in memory illusions, and in the phenomenon of false memory --
not just for what it can say about ostensibly recovered memories of trauma, but as an example of reconstructive processes in memory. I am also interested in social influences on memory construction.

I'm interested in a lot of things, but most of them revolve around memory somehow.

How does the specific area that you work in relate to memory research in other disciplines involved with Cog. Sci.?

This is a question that has to be answered with both an intra- and an inter-disciplinary focus.

So far as interdisciplinary work is concerned, there are lots of connections, through cognitive science and cognitive neuroscience, to biologists, computer scientists, philosophers, and linguists who are interested in memory. That part is taking care of itself.  But within psychology, there are connections that have to be made, or strengthened, or renewed. Cognitive psychologist interested in memory have to make contact not just with their colleagues in biological psychology, but also with their colleagues in clinical, developmental, personality, and social psychology. The entire field of psychology is shot through with
memory, but we don't make those contacts within the discipline as much as we should.

And those contacts, if pursued properly, will also take us back outside the discipline of psychology, but toward social science not cognitive science.  There are problems of memory in anthropology and sociology, like collective memory; in history, such as the role of oral testimony; and in literature,
such as the nature of the memoir as an emerging literary form -- one which, I think, is in danger of supplanting the novel. Historians, literary scholars, and sociologists and anthropologists also deal with memory, but by and large they know very little about the psychology of memory -- and psychologists know very little about them. We need to correct this, to develop a social science of memory, as well as a cognitive science.

How much work do you do with others outside your own area?

I like to collaborate. I like to say that I have a chameleon-like nature, in that I tend to take on the interests of those around me. That's not to say that I don't have a stable core of interests of my own. After all, deep down inside, I'm still a chameleon. But seriously, my interests are very broad, and I have a talent for seeing connections between disparate lines of inquiry. So collaboration is a natural for me. Make no mistake about it, though: collaboration is sometimes aggravating: you have to adjust to the other person, you have to make compromises, sometimes your own needs don't get met as much as you would like. But there are some things you want to do that you just can't do alone. I would never have
been able to pursue the problem of implicit memory in general anesthesia if I hadn't found an anesthesiologist who was interested in the problem as well. And the intellectual rewards are also great. You learn so much more, and it's just better to be broader than narrower.

What is the greatest unsolved question in memory research today?

How memory works. For me, though, the really interesting questions are a little narrower: (1) how people make memory-based judgments about the past; (2) the relations between conscious and unconscious memory; and (3) personal and social influences on memory.

What directions and/or research strategies will lead to a better understanding of memory?

In my view, psychology favors the individual level of analysis, but it has obvious links down to the biological level, and obvious links up to the sociocultural level, and there are things to be learned from exploring in both directions.

Obviously, memory is a biological fact as well as a mental faculty, and it is important to know more about its biological basis. But a lot of neuroscientific studies of memory processes aren't psychological at all --
they don't bear on what I consider to be the interesting psychological questions about the experience of remembering the past. And some brain-imaging research just strikes me as what Steven Hyman, the Director of the National Institute of Mental Health, calls "false-color phrenology".  I think that brain-imaging is important, and I am glad that UCB is getting into this game in a big way, but we will never learn anything of interest from brain imaging studies unless and until we have good theories of the
tasks that people are performing while their brains are being imaged. And developing those theories is a task for our old friend cognitive psychology, doing experiments involving behavioral methodologies. Cognitive theory comes first: then we will know what to make of the pretty pictures.

The reductionist urge is very strong in psychology, as it is everywhere in science, but I think that a better understanding of memory requires that we pay attention to the personal and social context in which memory operates, as well as to its biological basis. We need to know more about how people organize autobiographical memory; how they use memory in the ordinary course of everyday living; how social influences -- dyadic relationships, group processes, institutions, and other social structures -- influence
memory. Memory is something brains do, but it's something _people_ do as well -- and we know almost nothing about these wider personal and social issues.

What advice do you have for students who are interested in studying memory?

Come to Berkeley! Or, failing that, to take the broadest possible perspective on what memory is. Memory is a human mental faculty, if you will, but it is also something that nonhuman animals have, and we can learn important things from animal research. Memory has its biological substrates, and these are important. But memory also serves personal and social purposes, and so students interested in studying memory should also look to social psychology, and even beyond psychology to disciplines like history, literature, and sociology where issues like memoir, testimony, and collective memory crop up. Students interested in studying memory should strive to put their interests in the broadest possible context, so that they get, and retain, the big picture.

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