chapter  10
31 Pages

The Organization of Memory in Free Recall

Two indisputable facts motivate the argument of this chapter: We all know huge, organized fi elds of information-such as the names of Major League baseball players or the contributors to English literature over the centuries-yet from a single experience with a fresh set of such names, or other items, we can extract miserably few memories, even immediately afterwards. The free-recall task seems to capture this paradox in a single experimental setting. A single trial with a list of unrelated words gives a span of immediate free-recall memory that is slightly poorer than with letters or digits, but during subsequent trials with the same materials the subject can accumulate the ability to retrieve dozens of items. What is it that happens on repeated efforts to learn that allows us to overcome the sharp limitations of immediate memory? This question is obviously a variant on the main issue in the last chapter and at some point in the future we may have a common theoretical frame for studies of intralist repetitions and studies of free-recall organization; for the present, separate treatment is most convenient.