The Constructive Trace Theory of Memory

Date of Award

Summer 8-15-2012

Author's School

Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Author's Department

Philosophy/Neuroscience, and Psychology

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Type



Memory traces feature in nearly every account of memory. They appear as birds in Plato's aviaries and images in Locke's storeroom of ideas, as well as grooves in phonographic records, pictures in a gallery, and textual and digital archives in the vast library of the mind. The persistence of such metaphors reveals our long-standing commitment to the existence of memory traces as well as a lack of clarity about their nature. What role do memory traces play in an account of memory? And why are memory traces so often portrayed as stored images of past experiences?

In this dissertation, I develop an account of memory traces that answers these questions. I defend a Constructive Trace Theory of Memory (CTTM), according to which remembering is a causal process and the memory trace is the label given to the specific form of causal connection that remembering involves. Successful remembering requires a representation--formed in response to a cue--that meets the following two conditions: 1) it accurately depicts the event targeted by the cue and 2) it is produced or sustained by a memory trace acquired from the targeted event. Remembering is constructive because the representation is created in the act of remembering. The memory trace is a capacity to produce such representations, although how this capacity is manifested is influenced by the particular cue and surrounding conditions with which the trace interacts.

I begin by addressing the role of memory traces in an account of remembering, sketching an account of memory traces (Chapter 1) and defending that view from skeptical objections (Chapter 2). Chapters 3 and 4 explore the causal and representational features of memory traces, respectively, and in each case I reject standard assumptions of what remembering requires. In Chapter 5, I confront the Constructivist challenge to the trace theory, arguing that my view not only has the resources to withstand it, but actually best explains the constructive nature of remembering.


English (en)

Chair and Committee

Carl F Craver

Committee Members

John M Doris, John Heil, Julia Driver, Rebecca Treiman, Henry L Roediger


Permanent URL: https://doi.org/10.7936/K7SN06XH

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