Selfappreciation monitoring and control of ones own memory

Although some authors consider the study of metamemory a newcomer to the field of memory research, its roots are rather ancient. Already St Augustine (400) referred to 'Memory of memories... I have remembered that I have remembered'. Interest in the self-appreciation of one's own knowledge and performance was shared by introspectionists during the early days of experimental psychology, especially the so-called 'Wurzburg school' of 'systematic experimental introspection' (Boring 1950a).1 However, systematic reports on "subjects'ability to predict their own learning ability had to await the development of more rigorous research "methods (e.g. Underwood 1966). Soon after, Tulving and Madigan (1970) noted that 'one of the truly unique characteristics of human memory (is) its own knowledge', and added that '. if there is ever going to be a genuine breakthrough in the psychological study of memory... it will... relate the knowledge stored in the individual's memory to his knowledge of that knowledge'. Finally, the term 'metamemory' itself (meta- Greek for 'beyond', 'after') was coined by Flavell (1971). This was in the context of research on the development of learning and memory in children in general, and children's knowledge about their own memory in particular. Flavell and his coworkers became interested in questions such as whether kids appreciate that some types of material are harder to remember than others, and whether they have any idea of how to improve their learning "performance. For example, do kindergarten kids realize that it is easier to remember the gist of a short story rather than its exact wording? In suggesting 'metamemory', Flavell had in mind the analogy with 'metalanguage' (a language used to describe a language under study) (Flavell and Wellman 1977). 'Metamemory' is hence a 'higher-order' memory, and as such is 'metacognitive' faculty ('metacognition', the ability to reflect on one own's cognitive processes and performance, e.g. Yzerbyt et al. 1998). Viewed this way, metamemory is part of a belief system that comprises a 'private theory of mind'.2

The research on metamemory still occupies a central position in developmental psychology (reviewed in Schneider 1999), but has long transcended into other subdisciplines of memory research. There are multiple facets to metamemory, some implicit, others accessible to "conscious recollection ("declarative), some involved in self-appreciation and self-monitoring of performance, others in controlling it. Here are some measures; all have been used to infer that metamemory does exist, and to then analyse it:

1. Ease of learning, refers to the subject's judgement of how easy is the task to be learned (Underwood 1966).

2. Judgement of learning, refers to the subject's prediction of whether the information was indeed "acquired and whether it will be successfully "retrieved (Arbuckle and Cuddy 1969).

3. Feeling of knowing (FOK), refers to the subject's judgement of whether an item is in memory despite a failure to retrieve it at present time (Hart 1965). A related term is the "metaphor depicting verbal information in an incomplete "retrieval situation as residing on the 'tip of the tongue' (Brown and McNeill 1966).

4. Control of learning strategy, refers to the subject's self-appreciation of the effectiveness of learning strategies, their applicability to the target in question, and their recruitment, for example, whether to use "spaced, rather than massed, training. 5. Control of retrieval strategy, refers to the subject's self-appreciation of retrieval strategies and effectiveness. Consider, for example, the decision whether to terminate a retrieval attempt or to pursue it (as appreciated intuitively, this could be related to FOK, see above). Control of retrieval and learning strategies, as well as other facets of metamemory, were considered as a potential leverages to memory improvement (Hertzog 1992; "mnemonics).

The self-belief and predictions about one's own memory could sometimes be deceiving (e.g. Herrmann 1982; Benjamin et al. 1998), but still, in many situations they are well above chance level, and sometimes are dependable indeed (e.g. Kelemen and Weaver 1997). Thus, while keeping in mind occasional criticism concerning the research methodology and the conclusions (e.g. Cavanaugh and Perlmutter 1982), metamemory is now regarded not only as a theoretical concept but also as a concrete cognitive faculty that we routinely use in "real-life. It improves throughout childhood and probably remains fairly stable in normal ageing, in spite of some decline in self-confidence (Cohen 1996). How is it at all possible for us to know whether we know or do not know an item in memory without specifically retrieving that item, is mostly still a mystery. Understanding the processes and mechanisms involved is bound to tell us a lot about how acquisition, storage, and retrieval really work in a complex brain. For example, are FOK and control of retrieval due to some 'internal monitor', a type of "homunculus, that gauges the inventory of our "engrams from an outside-of-store position? Alternatively, metamemory may reflect the monitoring of the system by itself, an outcome of computations performed within the memory system in the course of an attempt to retrieve. The latter possibility (e.g. Koriat 1993) is more in line with what we currently feel that we know about how the brain operates. It is, however, prudent to note that at least in some situations, the 'K' in FOK could be misleading, as the 'F' may be based on familiarity of the problem rather than judgement of the availability of information (e.g. Reder and Ritter 1992; Klin et al. 1997). In that case, it is even questionable what is 'meta' in the 'metamemory'.

What brain circuits subserve metamemory? There are two ways of approaching the problem. One is to assess the effect of brain lesions and pathology, such as "dementia and "amnesia, on the performance in metamemory tasks (Kaszniak and Zak 1996). Some aspects of memory monitoring remain intact even in dementia of the Alzheimer type (Moulin et al. 2000). Impairment in FOK is evident in Korsakoff's patients, but is not an obligatory feature of amnesia (Shimamura and Squire 1986). One of the characteristics of Korsakoff's patients is frontal "cortex dysfunction. Frontal patients that are not amnesics also show impairment on FOK. All this has led to the proposal that the frontal lobe is critical for self-monitoring of memory (Shimamura 1995; but see doubts in O'Shea et al. 1994). Another potential approach is to use "functional neuroimaging to observe brain areas in metamemory tasks, although the differentiation between engagement of 'metamemory' and 'memory' circuits may not be easy.

As noted above, Tulving and Madigan (1970) deemed metamemory unique to human memory. Is it true? Over the years attempts have been made to prove that other species also know what they know and what they don't. Verbal tests are unfortunately out of question in nonhuman subjects. The anecdotal testimony of pet owners is also useless as a respectable research methodology. All this makes it necessary to devise some sophisticated tricks to overcome the communication barrier (e.g. Smith et al. 1998; Inman and Shettleworth 1999; Hampton 2001). Some will claim that this need for the indirect approach is actually an advantage, because not having to rely on questionnaires, opinion polls, and subjective verbal accounts, does only good to the field. Without going too much into details, here is an illustrative approach: suppose we train a pigeon on a delayed matching-to-sample task ("delay task), and occasionally allow it to choose between a test of memory for the sample with a hefty "reinforcement, or pecking a safe key for a meagre reinforcement. Will the pigeon prefer the safe key when it senses that its own memory is feeble, say, after a long delay? As Inman and Shettleworth (1999) show, even when such a behaviour is observed, interpretations other than the use of metamemory are still possible. Nevertheless, this kind of experimental design might in principle be further explored and "controlled to identify metamemory. Among the nonhuman contenders for a personal theory of memory, "monkeys and anthropoid apes are probably a better bet than pigeons. In any case, this is definitely an area of research where smart application of "Ockham's razor is an effective antidote for "anthropomorphism and "red herrings.

Selected associations: Cerebral cortex, Mnemonics, Reallife memory, Retrieval

1On the Wurzburg School see also 'learning set.

2A subject is said to have a 'theory of mind' if it can impute mental states to itself and others ('observational learning).

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