Memories as Reconstructions Essay

The processes underlying cognition processes, including memorizing, still remain widely unexplored. However some of the researches provide theories, which may explain how these processes working. Reconstruction theory of memory objects mechanistic concepts of memory and explain several human cognitive phenomena.

In the Gestalters’ analysis each experience is perceived as being recorded in memory as a separate trace and a recall being a reactivation of the specific trace. Bartlett (1932) and Neisser (1967) have objected “reappearing trace” theory. Their alternative theory is often referred to as a reconstruction hypothesis. These authors argued that humans in fact construct mental objects in their mind out of the elementary sensory data available rather than register events and classifying them. Such model of perception is often called “analysis by synthesis”. Neisser, influenced by Bartlett, also argued, that memorizing events, we use our whole conceptual repertoire to reconstruct the initial experience that we try to recall.

According to Bartlett (1932), an important organizing factor enabling such reconstructive recall of memories was so called “schema.” His definition of the term schema was “an active organization of past reactions, or of past experiences, which must always be supposed to be operating in any well-adapted organic response” (p. 201). According to Bartlett, an individual, in order to recall his experience, has somehow to reverse his own “schemata” and reconstruct afresh the memories (p. 206).

The subject’s general attitude and perception about the events he is trying to recall plays an important role plays in this constructive cognitive activity. In other words, reconstructed memories normally will justify an existing attitude to the event one tries to recall Neisser (1967) interpreted Bartlett’s concept of schema as a cognitive structure, which according to him is “nonspecific but organized representation of prior experience” (p. 287). According to Neisser these schemata are created by the process of the constructive recall, rather then being stored in memory. However, our brain stores the traces of the processes, which was used to reconstruct initial experience. For example, a mnemonic representation of certain information to be remembered would be such traces of the perceptual processes, which took place during the initial perception of the information. Therefore humans in fact are not remembering events, but rather how they cognized these events when they happened.

Support for reconstructive conception of memory could be easily demonstrated by common situation, when different people may have different memories regarding the very same event they observed. Besides individuality of recalled memories reconstructive nature of memories explains many examples of cognitive biases, such as hindsight bias (Stahlberg, & Maass, 1996), choice-supportive bias (Mather, Shafir & Johnson, 2000, pp. 596-606), egocentric biase (Ross & Sicoly, 1979, pp. 322-336), etc.


  • Bartlett, F. C. (1932). Remembering: A study in experimental and social psychology. Cambridge: The University Press.
  • Neisser, U. (1967) Cognitive psychology. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
  • Stahlberg, D., & Maass, A., (1996) Hindsight bias: Impaired memory or biased reconstruction? Sonderforschungsbereich 504 Pub #97-27.
  • Mather, M., & Johnson, M. K. (2000). Choice-supportive source monitoring: Do our decisions seem better to us as we age? Psychology and Aging, 15, 596-606
  • Ross, M. & Sicoly, F. (1979). Egocentric biases in availability and attribution. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 37, 322-336.