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Let's start from scratch in thinking about what memory
is for, and consequently, how it works. Suppose that memory and
conceptualization work in the service of perception and action. In
this case, conceptualization is the encoding of patterns of possible
physical interaction with a three-dimensional world. These patterns
are constrained by the structure of the environment, the structure of
our bodies, and memory. Thus, how we perceive and conceive of the
environment is determined by the types of bodies we have. Such a
memory would not have associations. Instead, how concepts become
related (and what it means to be related) is determined by how
separate patterns of actions can be combined given the constraints
of our bodies. I call this combination “mesh.” To avoid
hallucination, conceptualization would normally be driven by the
environment, and patterns of action from memory would play a
supporting, but automatic, role. A significant human skill is learning
to suppress the overriding contribution of the environment to
conceptualization, thereby allowing memory to guide conceptualization.
The effort used in suppressing input from the environment pays off by
allowing prediction, recollective memory, and language comprehension.
I review theoretical work in cognitive science and empirical work in
memory and language comprehension that suggest that it may be possible
to investigate connections between topics as disparate as infantile
amnesia and mental-model theory.
A functional theory of memory has already been developed
as part of a general functional theory of cognition. The traditional
conception of memory as “reproductive” touches on only
a minor function. The primary function of memory is in constructing
values for goal-directedness of everyday thought and action. This
functional approach to memory rests on a solid empirical
Glenberg's theory is rich and provocative, in our view,
but we find fault with the premise that all memory representations
are embodied. We cite instances in which that premise mispredicts
empirical results or underestimates human capabilities, and we suggest
that the motivation for the embodiment idea – to avoid the
symbol-grounding problem – should not, ultimately, constrain
Glenberg's rethinking of memory theory seems limited
in its ability to handle abstract symbolic thought, the selective
character of cognition, and the self. Glenberg's framework can
be elaborated by linking it with theoretical efforts concerned with
cognitive development (Piaget) and ecological perception (Gibson).
These elaborations point to the role of memory in specifying the self
as an active agent.
We are sympathetic to most of what Glenberg says in his target
article, but we consider it common wisdom rather than something
radically new. Others have argued persuasively against the idea of
abstraction in cognition, for example. On the other hand, Hebbian
connectionism cannot get along without the idea of association, at
least at the neural level.
(1) Non-projectable properties as opposed to the clamping of
projectable properties play a primary role in triggering and guiding
human action. (2) Embodiment in language-mediated memories should
be qualified: (a) Language imposes a radical discretization on body
constraints (second-order embodiment). (b) Metaphors rely on
second-order embodiment. (c) Language users sometimes suspend
This commentary connects some of Glenberg's ideas
to similar ideas from artificial intelligence. Second, it briefly
discusses hidden assumptions relating to meaning, representations,
and projectable properties. Finally, questions about mechanisms,
mental imagery, and conceptualization in animals are posed.
Corresponding to Glenberg's distinction between the
automatic and effortful modes of memory, I propose a distinction
between cued and detached mental representations. A cued
representation stands for something that is present in the external
situation of the representing organism, while a detached
representation stands for objects or events that are not present in
the current situation. This distinction is important for understanding
the role of memory in different cognitive functions like planning and
Researchers in the field of discourse processing have
investigated how mental models are constructed when adults
comprehend stories. They have explored the process of encoding
various classes of inferences “on-line” when these
mental microworlds are constructed during comprehension. This
commentary addresses the extent to which these inferences and
mental microworlds are “embodied.”
Glenberg argues for embodied representations relevant to
action. In contrast, we propose a grouping of representations, not
necessarily all being directly embodied. Without assuming the
existence of representations that are not directly embodied, one
cannot account for the use of knowledge abstracted from direct
Glenberg's conception of “meaning from and for
action” is too narrow. For example, it provides no satisfactory
account of the “logic of Elfland,” a metaphor used by
Chesterton to refer to meaning acquired by being told something.
All that we call spirit and art and ecstasy only means that for one
awful instant we remember that we forget.
Glenberg provides a new and exciting view that is especially
useful for capturing some functional aspects of memory. However,
memory and its functions are too multifarious to be handled by any
one conceptualization. We suggest that Glenberg's proposal be
restricted to its own “focus of convenience.” In addition,
its value will ultimately depend on its success in generating detailed
and testable theories.
Glenberg focuses on conceptualizations that change from
moment to moment, yet he dismisses the concept of working memory
(sect. 4.3), which offers an account of temporary storage and on-line
cognition. This commentary questions whether Glenberg's account
adequately caters for observations of consistent data patterns in
temporary storage of verbal and visuospatial information in healthy
adults and in brain-damaged patients with deficits in temporary
To model potential interactions, memory must not only mesh prior patterns of action, as Glenberg proposes, but also their internal consequences. This is necessary both to discriminate sensorimotor information by its relevance and to explain how go
als about the world develop. In the absence of internal feedback, Glenberg is forced to reintroduce a grounding problem into his otherwise sound model by presupposing interactive goals.
Can memory be cast as a system that meshes events to actions?
This commentary considers the concepts of mesh versus association,
arguing that thus far the distinction is inadequate. However, the goal
of shifting to an action-based view of memory has merit, most notably
in emphasizing memory as a skill and in focusing on processes as
opposed to structures.
Glenberg tries to explain how and why memories have semantic
content. The theory succeeds in specifying the relations between two
major classes of memory phenomena – explicit and implicit memory
– but it may fail in its assignment of relative importance to
these phenomena and in its account of meaning. The theory is syntactic
and extensional, instead of semantic and intensional.
There are three major weaknesses with Glenberg's
theory. The first is that his theory makes assumptions about internal
representations that cannot be adequately tested. The second is that
he tries to accommodate data from three disparate domains: mental
models, linguistics, and memory. The third is that he makes light of
advances in cognitive neuroscience.
The functional theory of memory set out in Glenberg's
target article accords with recent proposals in the developmental
literature with respect to event memory, conceptualization, and
language acquisition from an embodied, experiential view. The
theory, however, needs to be supplemented with a recognition
of the sociocultural contribution to these cognitive processes and
What would Glenberg's attractive ideas look like when
computationally fleshed out? I suggest that the most helpful next
step in formalizing them is neither a connectionist nor a symbolic
implementation (either is possible), but rather an implementation-
general analysis of the task in terms of the informational content
The ability of Glenberg's model to explain the
development of complex symbolic abilities is questioned. Specifically,
it is proposed that the concepts of clamping and suppression fall
short of providing an explanation for higher symbolic processes such
as autobiographical memory and language comprehension. A related
concept, “holding in mind” (Olson 1993), is proposed as