The April 29 article in Health & Fitness called "Fragile Memory?" is interesting but needs an important addendum. When Dr. Charles Fernyhough talks about reconstructive memories and their susceptibility to error and distortion, he is really referring to the crucial process of retrieval as we try to recall recent and/or remote events. Long-term memory is indeed prone to clutter as the memory trace fades. Fading memories (forgetting) can be influenced by trauma, an emotionally charged reason to forget, or time. However, it is well documented that what the individual interprets as an especially meaningful experience (what Fernyhough labels as autobiographical memory) is often more enduring and relatively less prone to reconstructive distortion. This type of remembrance is very important to the individual and may hold a special place in one's life. We tend to recall more easily those experiences that have had an impact on us.
When we take in experience as we perceive and interpret the world around us, such experience eventually becomes a part of either long- or short-term memory. The sequence of attention and memory processing is aptly termed "depth of processing." Without this neurobiological based mechanism we wouldn't be able to recognize objects, people, places or things or, in fact, know anything. We recognize, understand and know what is immediate by assimilating it to what we already know.
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In addition, memories are coded in the human mind via language and visual imagery. In fact, we often retrieve information by semantic and visual association. That's why very young children don't remember as well as do we.
Dr. Larry J. Powitz Clinical psychologist Arlington Heights