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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 cues 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:

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 Socrate's 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).