Reconstructive memory (& the 3 stages of memory)

In this article, we approach the concepts of memory, reconstructive memory, sensory, short-term and long-term memory. We also talk about the making of false memories and why it is important to understand what false memory is.

What exactly is reconstructive memory?

Reconstructive memory is the type of memory involved when the information is passed from person to person, often by word of mouth as in spreading rumours or gossip. It’s not just the simple reproduction of the past but the interpretation of it in light of one’s beliefs, expectations, and so on, and therefore often involves a distortion of objective truth.

Reconstructive memory, that is, those processes that allow subjects to recreate inferentially, their memories also support this link with learning. For example, the students can recall data they did not study but derived inferentially from what they did study. 

If the information is processed more elaborately at the time of the study, memory capacity will be improved since this facilitates reconstructive recovery at the time of studying.

An individual develops an Implicit Personality when he forms biases towards other people based on the little information they have. unlike in Reconstructive personality, one doesn’t take into account other people’s perspective on certain things too seriously.

On the other hand, there is another type of memory called the Selective memory which is quite different from Reconstructive memory.

In this regard, Baddeley (1986) proposed that the tests that people carry out could affect the way memory performs. Through them human beings use their bodies as transitory memories that help to store information, such as the case of staring at the place where the object to be remembered is located, measuring a distance with your hands and leaving your hands in that position as a way to remember that measure etc. 

The verbal system is especially important in these respects and Baddeley coined the term phonological spiral to speak of the use of this system as transitory memory. 

For Baddeley (1986) the phonological spiral consists of two systems, one that is a warehouse that retains information based on speech and another that can

talk to yourself (subvocal speech).

To explain what reconstructive memory is, we must first understand what the concept of memory is.

The concept of the memory process

Human memory is brain function resulting from synaptic connections between neurons

through which the human being can retain past experiences. Memories are created when neurons built into a circuit enhance the intensity of the synapses.

Human memory, unlike the memory of animals, does not act mainly based on your present needs, thus you can contemplate the past and plan for the future. Regarding your capacity, it has been calculated the human brain can store information that “would fill about twenty million volumes, as in the largest libraries in the world ”. 

Some neuroscientists have calculated that in a lifetime only one ten-thousandth (0.0001) of the brain’s potential is used.

The three main stages of memory

The basis of the distinction that is made today between different types of memory is depending on the time interval for which the storage is made. One can differentiate between sensory memory, short-term memory and long-term memory. They are also known as the level of processing.

According to the temporal scope with which they correspond, they are classified, conventionally, in the short term memory (a consequence of the simple excitation of the synapse to reinforce it or sensitize it transiently) and long-term memory (a consequence of a permanent reinforcement of the synapse thanks to the activation of certain genes and the synthesis of the corresponding proteins).

Operating Memory (Short-term Memory)

The Operating Memory is the system where the individual manages the information from which he is interacting with the ambient. Although this information is more durable than that stored in sensory memories, it is limited to approximately 7 ± 2 items for 10 s (memory span) if not reviewed.

This limitation of capacity is manifested in the effects of primacy and recency. When people are presented with a list of items (words, pictures, actions, etc.) to be memorized, after a short period, they more easily remember those items that are presented at the beginning (primacy) and the end (recency) of the list, but not those in between.

The primacy effect decreases as the length of the list increases, but the recency effect does not. The explanation given to these data is that people can mentally review the first

elements until they are stored in long-term memory, at the cost of not being able to process the elements intermediate. The last items, meanwhile, remain in the Operating Memory after the completion of the learning, so they would be accessible when remembering the list.

The general functions of this memory system include the retention of information, the support in learning new knowledge, understanding the environment at any given time, formulating immediate goals and problem-solving.

Long-Term Memory

Long-term memory is a repository that is referred to when we commonly speak of memory in general. It is the structure in which they are stored lived memories, knowledge about the world, images, concepts, action strategies, etc.

It has unknown capacity and contains information of a different nature. It is considered as the database in which the information is inserted through the Operating Memory, to subsequently make use of it.

A first distinction within the Long-term memory is the one established between Declarative Memory and Procedural  Memory.

The Declarative Memory is one in which information about events is stored, while the Procedural Memory serves to store information about procedures and strategies that allow interaction with the environment, but that its implementation takes place

unconsciously or automatically, making it virtually impossible to verbalize it.

Sensory Memory

The sensory memory contains a large amount of information and a fairly accurate representation of sensory information, which reaches the sense organ. When we talk about sight, we are talking about iconic memory, and if hearing is involved, echoic memory.

Usually, people can remember four or five items to which they were exposed, a phenomenon known as memory volume. However, researchers have started from the intuitive hypothesis that people see more than they can communicate, quickly forgetting everything. Another idea that the researchers had was that the image of the string of items lasts longer than the string.

A series of experiments demonstrated the fundamentally visual characteristics of iconic memory. One such paradigm is that of temporal integration. In this paradigm, 24 points are presented in 24 out of 25 squares of an imaginary row of 5 by 5, and the observer has the task of reporting where the point is missing. Even when the string is visible for a very short time, the place where the point is missing is easy to report.

It was concluded that two separate aspects of iconic memory are measured. The first aspect was the one that allowed the extraction of information, and the second was the visible part, of which the person was aware.

An integrative theory of the two aspects has the following foundations. First, a visual stimulus presented in a very short time triggers a sensory reaction. This reaction can be conceptualized as the magnitude of nerve activity. The magnitude increases with the appearance of the stimulus and continues to increase for a short period, from the disappearance of the stimulus and then decreases to zero.

Second, the amount of information obtained from the stimulus is related to the area under the function of sensory reactivity. Finally, the visibility of the stimulus is related to the rate at which the observer obtains information from the stimulus.

What is the function of reconstructive memory?

What the term “reconstruction” refers to is that, whenever we remember something, that memory is susceptible to being modified, because we “redo” or “reconstruct” the memory to be able to access it, with the interferences that this may involve. 

This is why the concept of “reconstructive memory” is related to “false memories” (which would be those erroneous details that we incorporate in our memories).

Based on the pupils capacity for memory and retention, teachers use unique ways to teach children in schools. They do so by using the Theory of Multiple Intelligence.

What are false memories?

Memory is what we use to get to our memories, to repeat some action that led us to the desired result, locate ourselves or pass an exam. Now, the difference between our memory and that of any machine is that we constantly distort those memories.

We remember that we have a memory, but this was encoded at the time with a specific charge, feelings and emotions, a cognitive state, some previous experiences and a context. By accessing it we can recall it, and perhaps access a residue of the emotion experienced at that particular moment; we access a transcript, but the state we are in when we recall it is not the same.

Nor are previous experiences the same, since over time they continue to increase, which leads us to have an image of the past seen from the present, with its consequent interference. Similarly, we can contaminate any event that occurs in the present, if it has been repeatedly imagined before.

Through expectations, given by inference based on previous situations or by mere personal desire, we condition the experience (and therefore the memory) of the present event, since these expectations are also a memory (for example I remember having desired that everything went perfect that day) and constitute a consolidated pseudo-learning, that is, something expected.

In such a situation, a fact with a low negative valence can be interpreted as a big problem, or in the reverse situation, a fact with a low positive valence can be interpreted as something extraordinary. Thus, in this way, this distortion remains encoded in memory, through the imagination that actively shapes reality.

Being clear about the distortion to which we subject our memory and the interference that the imagination of the future may have in its subsequent interpretation, it seems reasonable to believe that by changing the direction in which this imagination normally operates (forward) and turning it backwards, it can further distorting our memory, even creating memories of an event that never existed. This is the basis of false memories.

Why is it important to understand what a false memory is?

The importance of these data goes beyond the anecdotal (or not so anecdotal) of a discussion or the “who said what?” For example, a relatively recently studied aspect of forensic psychology has been trying to differentiate an actual statement from one contaminated with false or distorted information that has been suggested to the declarant.

Popular wisdom dictates that if someone tells something that did not happen or tells it in a way that does not fully conform to reality, it is because they want to do so; Maybe you have hidden motives or want to cheat someone. With the results previously exposed in this article, there is, at least, a reasonable doubt to this statement.

Thus, research in this area suggests that the most common sources of error are due to factors related to perception, interpretation of the facts, inference of unprocessed information, the passage of time and the post-event information received or imagined. These factors can cause the person to be telling the truth (yours) even remembering something that did not happen.

It is the job of psychologists, but also of anyone who wants to go beyond a first impression, try to analyze these factors as much as possible. Whether you are going to explain or receive an explanation that is relevant for one or more parties, whether in a legal field or daily life, it is important to keep in mind that our memory is the result of a process they go through the facts lived and that this “stored” result, even so, is not in a fixed and unalterable state.

FAQ about the reconstructive memory

What does it mean for memory to be reconstructive?

Reconstructive memory is the type of memory involved when the information is passed from person to person, often by word of mouth as in spreading rumours or gossip. It’s not just the simple reproduction of the past but the interpretation of it in light of one’s beliefs, expectations, and so on, and therefore often involves a distortion of objective truth.

Why is reconstructive memory important?

Reconstructive memory is important because it allows us to fill in the gaps and to make sense of our past experiences. More simply, we can say that it keeps us sane. 

What are 3 stages of memory?

The 3 main stages of memory are sensory, short-term, and long-term. The basis of the distinction that is made today between different types of memory is depending on the time interval for which the storage is made.

Who proposed reconstructive memory?

Sir Frederic Bartlett proposed the reconstructive memory theory. He was a British psychologist and the first professor of experimental psychology at Cambridge University.

What is false memory?

False memory is those erroneous details that we incorporate in our memories. We remember that we have a memory, but this was encoded at the time with a specific charge, feelings and emotions, a cognitive state, some previous experiences and a context. 

Further reading

Straub, H. (2010). Rethinking Scene Perception. Psychology of Learning and Motivation, 231–264. doi:10.1016/s0079-7421(10)52006-1

Lindsay, D. S. (2008). Source Monitoring. Learning and Memory: A Comprehensive Reference, 325–347. doi:10.1016/b978-012370509-9.00175-3 

Johnson, M. K. (2001). False Memories, Psychology of. International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, 5254–5259. doi:10.1016/b0-08-043076-7/01503-5 

Eich, E., Geraerts, E., Schooler, J. W., & Forgas, J. P. (2008). Memory in and about Affect. Learning and Memory: A Comprehensive Reference, 239–260. doi:10.1016/b978-012370509-9.00146-7 


Baddeley, A. (1986). Oxford psychology series, No. 11.Working memory. Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press.

Johnson M. MEM: mechanism of recollection Journal of Cognitive neuroscience 1992; 4: 268-80.