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Recollection is the retrieval of memory. It is not a passive process; people employ metacognitive strategies to make the best use of their memory, and priming and other context can have a large effect on what is retrieved.

When we try to remember information there are several different techniques we can employ. These are called Measures of Retention.


This involves digging into the memory and bringing back information on a stimulus/response basis, e.g., "What is the capital of New Zealand?" Answer: "Wellington". Recall often needs prompting with clues to help us retrieve what we are looking for. It is not a reliable form of memory and many of us experience the feeling that we know the answer but simply can't dig the information out. This is the technique we use to remember people's names, hence we often forget them. There are three types of recall:

  • Free recall: when no clues are given to assist retrieval
  • Serial recall: when items are recalled in a particular order
  • Cued recall: when some clues are given to assist retrieval

A common temporary failure in word retrieval from memory is the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon.

The verb "desynapse" is increasingly used to describe one common recall technique. The desynapse technique is useful when standard recall techniques have failed. The user stops trying to recall information directly and allows the data to be recalled whilst focused on an unrelated subject.

Plato and Socrates on recollection

Plato can be said to have believed that humans learn entirely through recollection. He thought that humans already possessed knowledge, and that they only had to be led to discover what they already knew. In the Meno, Plato used the character of Socrates to ask a slave boy questions in an excellent demonstration of the Socratic method until the slave boy came to understand a square root without Socrates providing him with any information.

While this can be said to be what Plato believed, there are many passages in Plato's Meno where it is suggested that this is not Socrates' true belief, but more of an attempt to get Meno to become a more questioning leader. And while what Socrates believes and what Plato believes are not necessarily always the same, if we were to take Socrates' theories as Plato's as well, it would not be entirely safe to say that Plato fully subscribed to the theory of recollection.

After witnessing the example with the slave boy, Meno tells Socrates that he thinks that Socrates is correct in his theory of recollection, to which Socrates replies, “I think I am. I shouldn’t like to take my oath on the whole story, but one thing I am ready to fight for as long as I can, in word and act—that is, that we shall be better, braver, and more active men if we believe it right to look for what we don’t know...” (Meno, 86b).

Socrates prefaces his theory of recollection by saying (perhaps to spoof Meno) that he has “...heard (the answer) from men and women who understand the truths of religion.” This is an ironic statement for Socrates to make, having just earlier encouraged to explain virtue in his own words.


In standard situations encountered in normal life, our ability to recognize what we know is far superior to our ability to recall it (but see Tulving's Elements of Episodic Memory for experiments where performance is better for recall than for recognition). We know a person's face, but their name eludes us. The police use recognition memory when they put suspects into a line-up or show you the book of mug shots. You will more often recognise a suspect than you will be able to give an accurate description from your recall memory. In an exam you will find it easier to answer the multiple-choice questions, because you will recognise the correct answer when you see it. However, asking you to write an answer from what you recall without any prompting poses a greater challenge. In psychology, a form of remembering characterized by a feeling of familiarity when something previously experienced is again encountered; in such situations a correct response can be identified when presented but may not be reproduced in the absence of such a stimulus.


Another way of remembering is relearning the material. You will find it comes back very quickly, even if you haven't used it for years. Have you ever tried relearning a language you haven't spoken since schooldays? How about riding a bike after not using one since childhood? Chances are these things take nowhere near as long to learn the second time around as they did the first time. The speed with which we relearn things tells us that we have the information already stored and the brain needs only to revive these memories and refresh them for use.The number of successive trials a subject takes to reach a specified level of proficiency may be compared with the number of trials he later needs to attain the same level. This yields a measure of retention by what is called the relearning method.
Relearning is supposedly the most efficient way of remembering information (Ebbinghaus, 1885).

Relative Sensitivity of Measures of Retention

Sensitivity refers to its ability to assess the amount of information that has been stored in the memory. Research suggests that recall is the least sensitive measure of retention, relearning is the most sensitive and recognition is in between (Nelson, 1978).

See also

References & Bibliography

Key texts


  • Neisser,U. (1982)(ed.) Memory Observed: Remembering in Natural Contexts, San Francisco: W.H. Freeman.


  • Kreutzer, M.A., Leonard, C. and Flavell, J.H. (19756) Prospective remembering in children. In: U. Neisser (1982) Memory Observed: Remembering in Natural Contexts, San Francisco: W.H. Freeman.

Meacham, J.A. and Leiman, B. (1982) Remembering to perform future actions. In: U. Neisser (ed.) Memory Observed: Remembering in Natural Contexts, San Francisco: W.H. Freeman.

Additional material


  • Bartlett, F.C. (1932) Remembering, London: Cambridge University Press.


External links

Types of memory
Articulatory suppression‎ | Auditory memory | Autobiographical memory | Collective memory | Early memories | Echoic Memory | Eidetic memory | Episodic memory | Episodic-like memory  | Explicit memory  |Exosomatic memory | False memory |Flashbulb memory | Iconic memory | Implicit memory | Institutional memory | Long term memory | Music-related memory | Procedural memory | Prospective memory | Repressed memory | Retrospective memory | Semantic memory | Sensory memory | Short term memory | Spatial memory | State-dependent memory | Tonal memory | Transactive memory | Transsaccadic memory | Verbal memory  | Visual memory  | Visuospatial memory  | Working memory  |
Aspects of memory
Childhood amnesia | Cryptomnesia |Cued recall | Eye-witness testimony | Memory and emotion | Forgetting |Forgetting curve | Free recall | Levels-of-processing effect | Memory consolidation |Memory decay | Memory distrust syndrome |Memory inhibition | Memory and smell | Memory for the future | Memory loss | Memory optimization | Memory trace | Mnemonic | Memory biases  | Modality effect | Tip of the tongue | Lethologica | Memory loss |Priming | Primacy effect | Reconstruction | Proactive interference | Prompting | Recency effect | Recall (learning) | Recognition (learning) | Reminiscence | Retention | Retroactive interference | Serial position effect | Serial recall | Source amnesia |
Memory theory
Atkinson-Shiffrin | Baddeley | CLARION | Decay theory | Dual-coding theory | Interference theory |Memory consolidation | Memory encoding | Memory-prediction framework | Forgetting | Recall | Recognition |
Method of loci | Mnemonic room system | Mnemonic dominic system | Mnemonic learning | Mnemonic link system |Mnemonic major system | Mnemonic peg system | [[]] |[[]] |
Neuroanatomy of memory
Amygdala | Hippocampus | prefrontal cortex  | Neurobiology of working memory | Neurophysiology of memory | Rhinal cortex | Synapses |[[]] |
Neurochemistry of memory
Glutamatergic system  | of short term memory | [[]] |[[]] | [[]] | [[]] | [[]] | [[]] |[[]] |
Developmental aspects of memory
Prenatal memory | |Childhood memory | Memory and aging | [[]] | [[]] |
Memory in clinical settings
Alcohol amnestic disorder | Amnesia | Dissociative fugue | False memory syndrome | False memory | Hyperthymesia | Memory and aging | Memory disorders | Memory distrust syndrome  Repressed memory  Traumatic memory |
Retention measures
Benton | CAMPROMPT | Implicit memory testing | Indirect tests of memory | MAS | Memory tests for children | MERMER | Rey-15 | Rivermead | TOMM | Wechsler | WMT | WRAML2 |
Treating memory problems
CBT | EMDR | Psychotherapy | Recovered memory therapy |Reminiscence therapy | Memory clinic | Memory training | Rewind technique |
Prominant workers in memory|-
Baddeley | Broadbent |Ebbinghaus  | Kandel |McGaugh | Schacter  | Treisman | Tulving  |
Philosophy and historical views of memory
Aristotle | [[]] |[[]] |[[]] |[[]] | [[]] | [[]] | [[]] |
Journals | Learning, Memory, and Cognition |Journal of Memory and Language |Memory |Memory and Cognition | [[]] | [[]] | [[]] |
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