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Book Forum: How the Mind Works   |    
Dynamic Memory Revisited, 2nd ed.
Am J Psychiatry 2002;159:1804-1805. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.159.10.1804
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Brooklyn, N.Y.

By Roger C. Schank. New York, Cambridge University Press, 1999, 302 pp., $60.00; $22.00 (paper).

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Schank’s central quest is the exploration of the roots of memory and intelligence. He started off in the previous edition of this book by dealing with the issue of artificial intelligence and how to get machines to memorize; how to get them to create, acquire, and store memories; and how they learned from new experiences. On the basis of his work in making machines more intelligent he explored the importance of gain from failure and learning what maneuvers may be learned in order not to fail the next time. He tells us that abstraction and generalizations are integral parts of the learning process. In order to learn one must be able to generalize from experience. This requires real-world experience, which is a central theme of the book.

The term "dynamic memory" involves a flexible, open-ended system that may be modified by experience and failure to understand and the ensuing process of modification of memory to correct what led to the failure. Schank states that memory is failure driven, that when we are incorrect in our predictions of people’s behavior and processes we make note of our errors so that the next time we are confronted with the same or similar situation we can make better predictions. He undertakes the many facets of the interaction between memory and reminding. For example, one man telling another of the fact that his wife does not make steak as rare as he would like it reminds the other man of a barber who will not cut his hair as short as he would like it.

In the process of dealing with memory Schank introduces some interesting concepts, such as "scripts." He defines a script as "a structure that describes a sequence of events in a particular context or a predetermined stereotyped sequence of actions that defines a well-known situation." An example of this may be hearing that a person took a final examination. This may conjure up the picture of a student sitting in a lecture hall together with other students and a proctor in the front of the room in some college setting. Learning instead that the examination was a chemical experiment in which the subject was analyzing an "unknown" in a qualitative chemical analysis laboratory will modify that image. Scripts are an important aspect of dynamic memory. They enable a situation to be reenacted in one’s mind and then perhaps modified later by learning what the situation was all about.

The author elaborates with many poignant examples. The main themes in his book are what structures there are in memory and how they may be altered to modify expectations and create new generalizations. How can we find the structures and memories to enable us to begin the process of expectation and reminding? Finally and perhaps most important to the heart and purpose of the book, how does knowing all this about memory and learning help us teach better?

The last and most interesting chapter is titled "Enhancing Intelligence." The author asks himself whether intelligence is mutable, that is, subject to change. He equates this question in his introductory sentence to, "Can we truly educate people?" His answer is, of course, in the affirmative. I have some difficulty with such an equation. The difference between "intelligence" and "educability" seems to be glossed over here. Schank dismisses behaviorism as "drill and practice, programmed workbooks, memorization, all this is the legacy that behaviorism left the schools." He chastises Chomsky for claiming what mattered was what formal knowledge people had about their language, not the actual communication or memory process associated with the production and comprehension of language. He states, "This stratagem, and its general acceptance by many linguists, psychologists, and philosophers, has had disastrous consequences for research in these fields." Schank’s plea is that students need to be taken away from the concept of the correct answer. Instead, they need to analyze their experiences and observations and learn from their errors. He states in his final sentence, "We must come to understand that human memory has a wonderful mutable quality and that a teacher’s job is to help memory evolve and grow."

As one may see from this summary, this is not an easy book to read or to fully understand. It is full of abstractions and generalizations and is primarily intended for individuals who are interested in understanding how learning occurs and its relationship to intelligence. It is the product of much thought and research of a very analytic mind, but it is not mainstream psychiatry. It is highly recommended to those interested in the process of teaching and how what is taught affects or fails to affect the student, be that student in grammar school or medical school, young or old.




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