Behavioral and Brain Sciences

What memory is for

Arthur M. Glenberg a1
a1 Department of Psychology, University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI 53706 [email protected]


Let's start from scratch in thinking about what memory is for, and consequently, how it works. Suppose that memory and conceptualization work in the service of perception and action. In this case, conceptualization is the encoding of patterns of possible physical interaction with a three-dimensional world. These patterns are constrained by the structure of the environment, the structure of our bodies, and memory. Thus, how we perceive and conceive of the environment is determined by the types of bodies we have. Such a memory would not have associations. Instead, how concepts become related (and what it means to be related) is determined by how separate patterns of actions can be combined given the constraints of our bodies. I call this combination “mesh.” To avoid hallucination, conceptualization would normally be driven by the environment, and patterns of action from memory would play a supporting, but automatic, role. A significant human skill is learning to suppress the overriding contribution of the environment to conceptualization, thereby allowing memory to guide conceptualization. The effort used in suppressing input from the environment pays off by allowing prediction, recollective memory, and language comprehension. I review theoretical work in cognitive science and empirical work in memory and language comprehension that suggest that it may be possible to investigate connections between topics as disparate as infantile amnesia and mental-model theory.

Key Words: amnesia; automatic memory; coherence; embodied meaning; inferences; language comprehension; memory; mental models; recollective memory; symbol grounding.