Autobiographical memory

Autobiographical memory contains information about yourself, and about personal experiences.

Emotions, the "facts" that describe you and make you unique, the facts of your life, and the experiences you have had, are all contained in separate domains, and processed differently.

Your memory for emotions can help you modify your moods.

Specific events you have experienced are only memorable to the extent that they include details special to that specific occasion.

Most events in our lives are routine, and are merged in memory into one generic memory containing the common elements of the experience.

Autobiographical memory contains the information you have about yourself. It includes several domains:

  • self-description (the source of a large part of your sense of identity), containing information such as:
    • whether or not you like ice-cream
    • what your favorite color is
    • what you think about a political party
  • emotional memory, which not only contains our memories of emotional experiences, but also helps us control our moods. By dwelling on appropriate memories, we can sustain a mood. By recalling memories that involve a contrasting emotion, we can change a mood.
  • event memory

diagram

Your memory for events

This is the largest component of autobiographical memory, containing three separate but related domains:

  • memory for specific events that have happened to you
  • memory for general events, which tells you the broad sequence of actions in events such as going to a restaurant or going to the dentist
  • a potted summary of your life, which enables you to answer such questions as, “Where did you go to school?”, “Where were you working last year?”.

These may be thought of as being connected hierarchically:

diagram

Recalling specific events

Event memory is usually entered via the general-event level, although the information we are searching for is usually at the specific-event level. Thus, if you're trying to retrieve the memory of going to see the movie Titanic, you will probably start by accessing the general event "going to the pictures"

Specific events over time become merged into a general event - all the occasions you've been to the dentist, for example, have blurred into a generic "script", which encapsulates the key experiences and actions that are typical of the going-to-the-dentist event. After the specific event has become consolidated into the script, only distinctive events are likely to be specifically remembered. That is, events when something unusual/interesting/humorous happened.

The power of these scripts is such that people often "remember" details of a specific event that never happened, merely because they are typical of the script for that event.

Our memory for events reflects what we expect to happen.

It is perhaps because of this that unexpected events and new events (first-time experiences) are better remembered. If you don't have an existing script for the event, or if the event is atypical enough not to easily fit an existing script, then you can't mould the experience to your expectations.

The more distinctive an event - the more the event breaks with your script for that type of event - the better your memory for that particular event will be. (Failures to remember trivial events, such as where you’ve put something, or whether you’ve done something, are reflections of the fact that we pay little attention to routine actions that are, as it were, already scripted).

To remember an event therefore, you should look for distinctive details.

What makes a good cue for remembering events?

One of the most interesting areas of research in the study of event memory is a small set of diary studies. In one such study, a Dutch psychologist called Willem Wagenaar recorded his day's events every day for six years, noting down:

  • who was involved
  • what the event was
  • where it occurred
  • when it occurred

Researchers at Duke University and the University of Amsterdam are conducting an experiment into autobiographical memory on the Internet, that basically tests your memory for personal events — you're given a word and you have to respond with the first personal event that comes to mind. Who can resist? To participate, go to http://memory.uva.nl/testpanel/gc/en/

Wagenaar was hoping to discover which of these different bits of information were the best retrieval cues. At the conclusion of his study he reported that what was the best cue, followed by who and where. When was the least effective (have you ever tried to remember an event on the basis of its approximate date?).

There is nothing particularly special about these types of information however. Later, Wagenaar reanalyzed his data, and found that most of the difference in the memorability of these cues was due to their relative distinctiveness. Thus, the nature of the event is usually the most distinctive aspect of the event, and the people involved, and the location, are usually more distinctive bits of information than the date or time of occurrence.

To remember a specific event, we need a key - a unique feature that allows us to readily distinguish that event from similar events.

References: 
  • Barsalou, L.W. 1988. The content and organization of autobiographical memories. In U. Neisser & E. Winograd (eds.) Remembering reconsidered: Ecological and traditional approaches to the study of memory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Robinson, J.A. 1992. Autobiographical memory. In M.M. Gruneberg, & P. Morris (eds). Aspects of memory. Vol.1: The practical aspects. 2nd ed. London: Routledge.
  • Diagrams taken from The Memory Key.

For more, see the research reports