Blog about short term memory research

Rehearsal - it is there to make everybody scurry around.

Eugen G Tarnow  January 26 2010 09:48:43 PM
If one goes to basement in the New York Hall of Science and studies the visitors who make soap bubbles once finds that they invariably take the large metal loops and shake them in the water.  In the exhibit there is a sign that tells them not to do it.  I have no doubt that the shaking does nothing to enhance the bubbles yet we all have a need to do it.

Similarly, memory psychologists have a need to believe in "rehearsal".  It is a conscious, unconscious process that is always there but can only be studied if the subjects are forced to do it.  Confused?  Me too.

Researchers argue that rehearsal cannot be turned off and they argue like Atkinson & Shiffrin that you believe in it once you see it.  Jonides et al write that "rehearsal most likely reflects a complex strategy rather than a primitive STM process" - can't make up their minds.  They also write "rehearsal is often implicitly assumed as a component of active maintenance, but formal considerations of STM typically take the opposite view" - sounds like nobody can make up their minds.  This is a mess reminiscent of Atkinson & Shiffrin's failure to properly define rehearsal and ending up with a theory which is not a theory.

Researchers like McElree and Jonides and others study rehearsal by forcing the subjects to rehearse.  It seems to me that one might be able to make the statement that rehearsal is assumed to be there, never shown to be there directly other than by forcing the subjects to do it.  Naveh-Benjamin and Jonides quote many studies in the beginning of the paper that disagree on the consequences of maintenance rehearsal - thus even the consequences, let alone the actual process, are "fragile" and in their experiments they force the subjects to rehearse aloud.  In other words, to study rehearsal one has to make it conscious.  If one does not make it conscious one believes it is still there without any direct evidence.  Articulatory suppression in your paper makes the performance degrade but is it ever possible to prove that it is because, and only because, it prevents rehearsal?  

Then there is the idea that one prevents rehearsal by forcing subjects to repeat some nonsense syllables.  What?  How can one ever show that this the one and only effect of the nonsense syllables?

I do believe rehearsal exists for very unusual events or very attractive or horrible events and that this makes for long term storage.

I would be more inclined to believe in a conscious rehearsal effort if somebody did an experiment that pays the subjects nothing, $1 or $10  or $100 for the average number of items remembered (using a non-attractive, detached experimenter actor), records their facial expressions and then does a post-experimental interview about their memory efforts and those efforts show that a conscious rehearsal makes a difference.

If nobody can show that people use rehearsal without forcing them to do so, the concept should be relegated to the garbage can.

I have a terrible memory, btw.  Perhaps it is because I do not rehearse...  
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