An Example of Dynamic Memory

When a person reads a story, the knowledge structures they used to understand the story change during the reading process in an attempt to absorb what has been read. It isn't that memory is trying to learn the story; memory really isn't an intentional entity. Rather, during the process of attempted understanding, memory must self-adjust in order to accommodate the information it is trying to process. As memory is engaged in understanding a story, learning, in some sense, has to take place. However, the learning that takes place is not simply the adding of information to memory. Consider, for example, the following story from the New York Times:

King of Saudi Arabia Urges A Formal Peace With Israel

Mecca, Saudi Arabia, June 1 (AP)--King Fahd pledged today to support all efforts to end the state of war formally between the Arabs and Israel and to promote peaceful coexistence in the region.

In a statement marking the Feast of Sacrifice, Islam's holiest feast, he also criticized Muslim militants for projecting the Islamic faith "as if it were the force that would destroy human civilization and take the world back to the Middle Ages."

The statement was read over state radio and television on the second day of the feast, which marks the end of the pilgrimage season to Mecca, Islam's holiest city.

In order to understand such a story, an understander must relate the information in it to what is already in the understander's memory. In this instance, this means taking previous beliefs that may have been in memory and attempting to use them to help comprehension. Each person understands such a story differently, because each person has different beliefs about the Middle East. So, if our reader's memory contains beliefs like "Arabs never want to make peace with Israel" and "Arabs promote terrorism in the name of Islam", then this reader would need to confront the fact that this new story violates both of those beliefs. There are many ways to deal with such memory conflicts. One is to ignore the new input. In this case, this story will not be remembered at all; the reader will have "forgotten" it because he or she failed to integrate it into memory. Another strategy is to say that prior beliefs were wrong and that the new story supersedes them. The problem here is that someone with this attitude would be purging prior memories in a way that is uncharacteristic of most readers. This isn't learning exactly, as the elimination of the old makes the new material a kind of orphan in memory.

More commonly, readers reconcile such conflicts by explaining the differences to themselves. A reader might think the Saudis are different than other Arabs, for example, and seek to explain this difference by recalling that they were allies of the US in the Gulf War. Further, the reader might recall that the Saudi government is, in general, more religious and more right wing than the terrorists they are condemning. However, the reader resolves these conflicts, the resolution itself results in new beliefs. The learning that has taken place was actually a modification of old beliefs and generalizations that cause failed expectations and the creation of new beliefs that are anchored by the example, also added to memory, of the new news article. Memory has thus changed by adding both new information and a new place to put that information and a new way to link that new information with older, and now modified information. Learning is, we can see, is a memory process--the result of the attempt to understand new information.

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