Autobiographical Memory Research Paper

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The term autobiographical memory refers to memory for the events of our lives and also to memory for more abstract personal knowledge such as schools we attended, people we had relationships with, places we have lived, places we have worked, and so on. Autobiographical memory is, then, an intricate part of the self and one of the more complex forms of cognition in which knowledge, emotion, identity, and culture, all intersect during the course of remembering: It is the complex nature of this intersection that will be considered here.

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1. Autobiographical Knowledge

In general a distinction can be drawn between memory for highly specific details of events and memory for more conceptual or abstract aspects of experience. For example, a person remembering a holiday from some years ago might recall a hot day on a particular beach, the heat of the sand on bare feet, the rhythmic sound of the waves, the coolness of the water, other people talking, etc., and these details may come to mind in the form of images, feelings, and sensations. This e entspecific knowledge, or ESK, is near to the sensory experiences from which they originate, they preserve some of the phenomenal nature of moment-bymoment conscious experience (Conway and PleydellPearce 2000), and when we recall them they trigger recollecti e experience resulting in a sense of the self in the past (Gardiner and Richardson-Klavehn 2000, Tulving 1985, Wheeler et al. 1997).

Probably the best description of this experience of remembering is provided by the great French writer Marcel Proust, who relates how the taste of a madeleine cake dipped in warm tea led to a sudden onrush of childhood autobiographical memories. In Proust’s account, however, the cue (the taste of the cake) occasions not just the recall of ESK but a whole flood of sensations, recollections of knowledge, and feelings for his previously ‘forgotten’ childhood (see Proust [1913] 1981). Indeed, a hallmark of autobiographical memories is that they always contain several different types of knowledge, some which is specific and some general. Thus, the person recalling the day on the beach might also recall that this occurred during a holiday in Italy, which in turn took place when the children were little. Conway and Pleydell-Pearce (2000) refer to these types of more abstract or conceptual autobiographical knowledge as general e ents and lifetime periods respectively.

2. Constructing Memories from Knowledge

2.1 Generating Autobiographical Memories

When Proust’s onrush of memories occurs he enters a state termed retrie al mode (Tulving 1983). In retrieval mode an intentional conscious attempt is made to recall memories, and a subset of attentional processes become directed toward long-term memory and to lifetime periods, general events, and ESK. Recalling memories is, however, a complicated process, and the evidence indicates that memories are constructed as a pattern of activation is set up across knowledge structures in long-term memory. Turning again to the example of the holiday memory, one can imagine that the memory was recalled while the rememberer was in conversation with a family member during which they were jointly recalling valued moments from their shared past. Thus, the cue is shared holidays, and this can be used to search lifetime periods and general events.

These knowledge structures contain information at different levels of specificity about activities, locations, others, motives, feelings, common to the period or general event and quite possibly several lifetime periods will be identified that contain general events of shared holidays. The lifetime period ‘when the children were little’ (a common lifetime period listed by older adults, Conway 1990) will contain knowledge that can be used to access the general event ‘holiday in Italy.’ Knowledge represented at this point can then be used to access related ESK, and once this occurs a whole pattern of activation is established across the different layers of autobiographical memory knowledge and a memory is formed. This process of generative retrieval is controlled by the working self and access to autobiographical knowledge is channeled through working self goal structures that determine the configuration of patterns of activation in long-term memory—which may or may not become full autobiographical memories.

2.2 Controlling Memory Construction

The influence of the working self on the process of memory generation is extensive and powerful and goals characteristic of certain personality and or attachment styles selectively increase accessibility to goal-relevant autobiographical knowledge (e.g., Bakermans-Kranenburg and IJzendoorn 1993, McAdams 1993, McAdams et al. 1997, Mikulincer and Orbach 1995, Mikulincer 1998, Strauman 1996, Woike 1995). Thus, individuals with a personality type centered around notions of power predominantly recall and value memories of events in which they controlled others, achieved high status, performed acts of leadership, demonstrated independence, and so forth. In contrast, individuals with a personality type centered around notions of intimacy and dependence have preferential access to memories of interactions with important others, social events, moments of dependency and interdependency, etc. (see Conway and Pleydell-Pearce 2000). The working self can also attenuate access to goal-incongruent or selfthreatening autobiographical knowledge. A frequently observed feature of clinical depression is an inability to form memories that contain ESK (Williams 1996). Instead the generation process terminates at the level of general events and, presumably, this disruption of retrieval has the protective effect of preventing the sufferer from recalling negative experiences that might otherwise serve to increase feelings of worthlessness and despair.

2.3 ‘ Spontaneous ’ Recall of Memories

The construction of autobiographical memories is, then, extended in time and is a product of a complex interaction between working self goals and long-term memory. But this process of generative retrieval, so frequently observed in experimental studies of autobiographical memory, can be bypassed by a sufficiently specific cue. A cue which corresponds to a representation of ESK will automatically activate that representation, and activation spreading from the ESK will activate a general event which in turn will activate a lifetime period. The result is that a pattern of activation is suddenly and spontaneously formed that, if linked to working memory goals, would immediately become a specific memory. Such spontaneous recall appears to be what Proust experienced and what many other writes have also described (see Salaman 1970 for a review). Indeed, Berntsen (1996) in a recent survey found that on average people report involuntary recalling two to three memories per day. The spontaneous recall of autobiographical memory most often occurs when we are in retrieval mode and actively attempting to recall a memory: It is then that other memories come to mind, often surprisingly, and occasionally of ‘forgotten’ experiences.

All these instances of spontaneous retrieval arise because a cue has activated representations of ESK. However, it is also the case that cues constantly activate autobiographical knowledge which is highly sensitive to both externally presented and internally generated cues (Conway and Pleydell-Pearce 2000). Such activations do not usually cause spontaneous remembering, because activation is restricted mainly to general events and lifetime periods and so does not reach a sufficient level of intensity to activate ESK. Nor, typically, do these activations engage the working self and because of this they occur outside conscious awareness. Nevertheless, the fact that direct retrieval does occur, and with some frequency, is good evidence for the nonconscious construction of autobiographical memories.

3. Vivid Memories

Memories can be effortfully generated or come to mind relatively effortlessly by a process of direct retrieval but, however a memory is constructed, at some point the activated knowledge becomes joined to the goal structures of the working self and this can facilitate or inhibit recall depending upon goal compatability. Some experiences are so self-engaging (positively or negatively) that they may be encoded in ways that make them especially available to construction and more resistant to forgetting than other memories. A good example of this type of memory are those termed flashbulb memories by Brown and Kulik (1977). In a formative study of memories for learning of various major news events that occurred in the 1960s, e.g., the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy (JFK), Martin Luther King, etc., a decade prior to their study, Brown and Kulik sampled memories from groups of white and black North Americans. They found that both groups had vivid and detailed memories of where they were and what they were doing when first learning the news of JFK’s murder. In contrast, less than half the white group had detailed memories for learning of the killing of Martin Luther King compared to all of the black group.

The selective formation of flashbulb memories by groups to whom the news event is most self-engaging has now been reported for a range of different events, e.g., the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan (Pillemer 1984), the resignation of the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (Conway et al. 1994), the 1989 Californian earthquake (Neisser et al. 1996), the death of the Belgium king (Finkenauer etal. 1997), and others. As Neisser (1982) points out, flashbulb memories are the points in our lives where we line up our personal history with public history and in effect say: ‘I was there.’

4. Memories and Motives

There are, of course, many other ways in which memories and the self-intersect with our social world. Pillemer (1998) documents several of these and shows how often they are related to important moments of change when new life goals were adopted, revised, or abandoned. One rich area for these types of memories is in education and it seems that quite a few people have vivid flashbulb-type memories for moments when a career path quite suddenly became apparent to them. To take an example from the many listed in Pillemer (1998), a student recalled how in an undergraduate class a professor, when challenged, was able to give the exact reference (act, scene, and line) for Iago’s line ‘Put up your bright swords for the dew will only rust them’ from Shakespeare’s Othello. This virtuoso act led the student into a sudden realization that she too would like to acquire such an exact and detailed body of knowledge and this in turn led her to apply to graduate school and to a career in research. These vivid selfdefining autobiographical memories (Singer and Salovey 1993) often date to a period when people were 15 to 25 years of age, a period known as the reminiscence bump, because when memories are recalled across the lifespan there is an increase in memories retrieved from this period (Rubin 1982, Rubin et al. 1998). One explanation here is that this is a period in which a stable and durable self-system finally forms, when processes such as generation identity formation take place, and the last phase of separation from the family occurs. Experiences during this period maintain an enduring connection to fundamental life goals and hence their prolonged high accessibility in long-term memory.

5. Memories and the Brain

An important development since the 1990s has been the study of the neural substrate of autobiographical remembering. This is of importance not only from a theoretical point of view but also because autobiographical memory is often disrupted following brain injury, and is one of the main cognitive abilities that becomes impaired, severely and irreversibly, in dementing illnesses of old age. Indeed, one very general form of impairment following varying types of brain injury is loss of access to ESK, with some sparing of more general autobiographical knowledge. Studies of people with brain injuries and current neuroimaging studies all indicate that autobiographical remembering is distributed over several different brain regions (see Conway and Fthenaki 2000, Markowitsch 1998). It appears that the constructive retrieval processes are mediated by neural networks in the frontal lobes, bilaterally, but more prominent in the left cortical hemisphere than in the right. As construction proceeds, and a memory is formed, activation shifts to the right cortical hemisphere to networks at the frontal-temporal junction (temporal poles) and temporal-occipital junction. Once a specific and detailed memory is ‘in mind’ activation can be detected in the right temporal and occipital lobes (and to a lesser extent in the left). The latter site of activation is important as it may reflect the activation of sensoryperceptual details of the recalled experience—the ESK that is such a hallmark of autobiographical remembering, access to which may be lost following neurological injury. Neurologically, then, the construction of autobiographical memories features activation of brain processing regions at the front of the brain in the neocortex and unfolds over time as a memory is constructed, to areas in the middle and toward the posterior of the brain.

6. Summary

Autobiographical remembering is a dynamic cognitive process leading to the transitory formation of specific memories. These memories are constructed from several different types of knowledge and have an intricate relation to self. Indeed, autobiographical memories are one of the key sources of identity and they provide a crucial psychological link from personal history of the self to selves embedded in society.


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