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False Memory

Charmagne Coble

Trace explores the complex relationship between absence and presence and how difficult it is to separate the two. Using her own body as the medium, Coble expresses personal experience of loss and grief by leaving traces of the human body through powders and chemicals on her skin. This series analyses what has been left behind yet at the same time shows what is quite clearly present. Combining this field with found objects that are transformed through a process of digital manipulation, Coble questions what life is like after one has experienced the trauma of loss and the reality of living with ghosts. These haunting images examine the construction of gist memories, of experiences we had before the trauma. 

Coble recently graduated with an MFA in Fine Art from Oxford Brookes University and has exhibited her work in Oxford and London. She lives and works in Oxford.

Researchers are increasingly turning to memory for explanations of judgment and decision making (for a review of the literature illustrating this point, see Weber & Johnson, 2009). Memory is much more than memorization,

Knowing that children reason rationally (in the classic sense) and that adults forego rational reasoning—which they are capable of—in favor of heuristics and biases casts explanations of judgment and decision making

Fuzzy-trace theory integrates these topics by distinguishing between meaning-based memory representations—gist—and superficial verbatim representations of information. (People use their memories to represent information even when the information is visible.) Intuition, in this view, relies on the meaning-based gist representations, but it is not developmentally primitive (Barrouillet, 2011a). On the contrary, intuitive thinking underlies the most advanced thinking

However, intuition produces meaning-based distortions in memory and reasoning. These distortions increase from childhood to adulthood, creating “developmental reversals” (i.e., children “outperform” adults under conditions that elicit meaning-based biases
Verbatim and gist representations

Fuzzy-trace theory encompasses memory, reasoning, judgment, and decision making—and their development across the life span (see Reyna & Brainerd, 1995a, 1995b). Although I provide a summary of the basic tenets of the theory here, the evidence for it comes from a very large literature; so no single study tests the entire theory. The basic tenets are fairly simple, however: The central tenet is that people encode, store, retrieve, and forget verbatim and gist memories separately and roughly in parallel. (My colleagues and I have conducted experiments, and constructed models, that differentiate retrieval from storage, storage from forgetting, and so on; e.g., Brainerd, Reyna & Howe, 2009; Reyna & Brainerd, 1995a.) The distinction between verbatim and gist memory was established in psycholinguistics (for an overview, see Clark & Clark, 1977). Verbatim memory is memory for surface form, for example, memory representations of exact words, numbers and pictures. Verbatim memory is a symbolic, mental representation of the stimulus, not the stimulus itself. Gist memory is memory for essential meaning, the “substance” of information irrespective of exact words, numbers, or pictures. Hence, gist is a symbolic, mental representation of the stimulus that captures meaning.

Disproving this claim that verbatim and gist are derived in tandem, many experiments have shown that verbatim and gist memory representations are actually extracted in parallel from the same stimulus (e.g., Reyna & Brainerd, 1992; 1995a). Thus, fuzzy-trace theory falls into the class of parallel models (Sloman, 2002), as opposed to the class of default-interventionist models (Evans, 2008; Kahneman, 2003; but, for discussion of fuzzy-trace theory’s assumptions about monitoring and inhibition, see Reyna, in press; Reyna & Mills, 2007b; Reyna, Estrada et al., 2011). For example, independent storage is exemplified in experiments on subliminal semantic priming, showing that semantic priming can occur (e.g., presenting the word “doctor” increases processing speed for the word “nurse”) even when exemplar words (“doctor”) are presented so fast that they cannot be encoded (i.e., verbatim memory for exemplar words is at chance). (Research on subliminal semantic priming and its relation to gist is summarized in chapter 4 of Brainerd & Reyna, 2005.) Conversely, storage of verbatim memories can occur without storage of gist; for example, when nonsense syllables are presented (rather than meaningful words or sentences), memory fades quickly and meaning-based false memory effects disappear (Brainerd, Reyna, & Brandse, 1995). That is, false recognition of similar (but never-presented) nonsense syllables is not stable over time, but gist-based false recognition is stable over time.

Charmagne Coble, Trace, 2016, Photograph, Courtesy of the Artist ©Charmagne Coble

False Memory


Charmagne Coble, Trace #2, 2016, Photograph, Courtesy of the Artist ©Charmagne Coble

False Memory


Charmagne Coble, Trace #3, 2016, Photograph, Courtesy of the Artist ©Charmagne Coble        

False Memory