autobiographical memory

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

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Sleep helps process traumatic experiences

  • A finding that sleeping after watching a trauma event reduced emotional distress and traumatic memories is intriguing in light of the theory that PTSD occurs through a failure of contextual processing.

A laboratory study has found that sleeping after watching a trauma event reduced emotional distress and memories related to traumatic events. The laboratory study involved 65 women being shown a neutral and a traumatic video. Typically, recurring memories of certain images haunted the test subjects for a few days (these were recorded in detail in a diary). Some participants slept in the lab for a night after the video, while the other group remained awake.

Those who slept after the film had fewer and less distressing recurring emotional memories than those who were awake. This effect was particularly evident after several days.

 One of the reasons for this benefit is thought to be that the memory consolidation processes that happen during sleep help contextualize the memories. This is interesting in view of the recent theory that PTSD is associated with a deficit in contextual processing.

However, I'd note that there is conflicting evidence about the effects of sleep on negative memories (for example, see http://www.memory-key.com/research/news/sleep-preserves-your-feelings-about-traumatic-events).

https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2016-12/uoz-shp121316.php

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Is PTSD a failure of context processing?

  • A new theory suggests a single dysfunction, in the processing of context, could underlie the multiple symptoms and characteristics of PTSD.

An interesting new theory for PTSD suggests that the root of the problem lies in context processing problems.

Context processing allows people and animals to recognize that a particular stimulus may require different responses depending on the context in which it is encountered. So, for example, a lion in the zoo evokes a different response than one encountered in your backyard.

Context processing involves the hippocampus, and its connections to the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. Research has shown that activity in these brain areas is disrupted in those with PTSD.

The idea that a disruption in this circuit can interfere with context processing can explain most of the symptoms and much of the biology of PTSD. Previous models have focused on one aspect of the disorder:

  • on abnormal fear learning, which is rooted in the amygdala
  • on exaggerated threat detection, which is rooted in a network involving the amygdala, the anterior cingulate cortex and insula
  • on executive function and emotion regulation, which is mainly rooted in the prefrontal cortex.

The researchers suggest that a deficit in context processing would lead PTSD patients to feel "unmoored" from the world around them, unable to shape their responses to fit their current contexts. Instead, their brains impose an "internalized context", one that always expects danger.

This type of deficit, arising from a combination of genes and life experiences, may create vulnerability to PTSD in the first place.

The researchers are now testing their model.

https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2016-10/uomh-wrg100716.php

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Concrete thinking may reduce the power of traumatic memories

  • Focusing on concrete details when experiencing a traumatic event may, oddly enough, protect you more from the power of those memories, than if you tried to distance yourself from what you are experiencing.

Can you help protect yourself from the memory of traumatic events? A new study suggests that, by concentrating on concrete details as you live through the event, you can reduce the number of intrusive memories later experienced.

The study, aimed particularly at those who deliberately expose themselves to the risk of PTSD (e.g., emergency workers, military personnel, journalists in conflict zones), involved 50 volunteers who rated their mood before watching several films with traumatic scenes. After the first film, they rated their feelings. For the next four films, half the participants were asked to consider abstract questions, such as why such situations happened. The other half were asked to consider concrete questions, such as what they could see and hear and what needed to be done from that point. Afterward, they gave another rating on their mood. Finally, they were asked to watch a final film in the same way as they had practiced, rating feelings of distress and horror as they had for the first film.

The volunteers were then given a diary to record intrusive memories of anything they had seen in the films for the next week.

Both groups, unsurprisingly, saw their mood decline after the films, but those who had been practicing concrete thinking were less affected, and also experienced less intense feelings of distress and horror when watching the final film. Abstract thinkers experienced nearly twice as many intrusive memories in the following week.

The study follows previous findings that emergency workers who adopted an abstract processing approach showed poorer coping, and that those who processed negative events using abstract thinking experienced a longer period of low mood, compared to those using concrete thinking.

Further study to confirm this finding is of course needed in real-life situations, but this does suggest a strategy that people who regularly experience trauma could try. It is particularly intriguing because, on the face of it, it would seem like quite the wrong strategy. Distancing yourself from the trauma you're experiencing, trying to see it as something less real, seems a more obvious coping strategy. This study suggests it is exactly the wrong thing to do.

It also seems likely that this tendency to use concrete or abstract processing may reflect a more general trait. Self-reported proneness to intrusive memories in everyday life was significantly correlated with intrusive memories of the films. Perhaps we should all think about the way we view the world, and those of us who tend to take a more abstract approach should try paying more attention to concrete details. This is, after all, something I've been recommending in the context of fighting sensory impairment and age-related cognitive decline!

Abstract thinking certainly has its place, but as I've said before, we need flexibility. Effective cognitive management is about tailoring your style of thinking to the task's demands.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2016-05/uoo-tdc050516.php

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Individuals vary in how they remember events

  • Individuals vary in how vividly they remember the past. A new study links this to differences in brain activity which may reflect a stable trait.
  • The finding also has implications for assessments of age-related cognitive decline.

A study involving 66 healthy young adults (average age 24) has revealed that different individuals have distinct brain connectivity patterns that are associated with different ways of experiencing and remembering the past.

The participants completed an online questionnaire on how well they remember autobiographical events and facts, then had their brains scanned. Brain scans found that those with richly-detailed autobiographical memories had higher mediotemporal lobe connectivity to regions at the back of the brain involved in visual perception, whereas those tending to recall the past in a factual manner showed higher mediotemporal lobe connectivity to prefrontal regions involved in organization and reasoning.

The finding supports the idea that those with superior autobiographical memory have a greater ability or tendency to reinstate rich images and perceptual details, and that this appears to be a stable personality trait.

The finding also raises interesting questions about age-related cognitive decline. Many people first recognize cognitive decline in their increasing difficulty retrieving the details of events. But this may be something that is far more obvious and significant to people who are used to retrieving richly-detailed memories. Those who rely on a factual approach may be less susceptible.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2015-12/bcfg-wiy121015.php

Full text available at http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0010945215003834

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Mental imagery training improves multiple sclerosis patients' cognition

  • Difficulties in remembering past events and imagining future ones are often experienced by those with multiple sclerosis.
  • A trial involving patients with MS has found that training in mentally visualizing imaginery scenarios can improve their ability to recall past events.
  • Deficits in event memory and imagination have also been found in older adults, so this finding might have wider application.

Training in a mental imagery technique has been found to help multiple sclerosis patients in two memory domains often affected by the disease: autobiographical memory and episodic future thinking.

The study involved 40 patients with relapsing-remitting MS, all of whom were receiving regular drug therapy and all of whom had significant brain atrophy. Participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups, one of which received the imagery training (17 participants), while the other two were controls — a control receiving a sham verbal training (10) and a control receiving no training (13). The six training sessions lasted two hours and occurred once or twice a week.

The training involved:

  • mental visualization exercises of increasing difficulty, using 10 items that the patient had to imagine and describe, looking at both static aspects (such as color and shape) and an action carried out with the item
  • guided construction exercises, using 5 scenarios involving several characters (so, for example, the patient might start with the general idea of a cook preparing a meal, and be guided through more complexities, such as the type of table, the ingredients being used, etc)
  • self-visualization exercises, in which the patient imagined themselves within a scenario.

Autobiographical memory and episodic future thinking were assessed, before and after, using an adapted version of the Autobiographical Interview, which involves subjects recalling events from earlier periods in their life, in response to specific cue words. The events are supposed to be unique, and the subjects are asked to recall as many details as possible.

Only those receiving the training showed a significant improvement in their scores.

Those who had the imagery training also reported an increase in general self-confidence, with higher levels of control and vitality.

Remembering past events and imagining future ones are crucial cognitive abilities, with more far-reaching impacts than may be immediately obvious. For example, episodic future thought is important for forming and carrying out intentions.

These are also areas which may be affected by age. A recent study, for example, found that older adults are less likely to spontaneously acquire items that would later allow a problem to be solved, and are also less likely to subsequently use these items to solve the problems. An earlier study found that older adults have more difficulty in imagining future experiences.

These results, then, that show us that people with deficits in specific memory domains can be helped by specific training, is not only of interest to those with MS, but also more generally.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2015-08/ip-mvi082515.php

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How your brain chunks ‘moments’ into ‘events’

We talk about memory for ‘events’, but how does the brain decide what an event is? How does it decide what is part of an event and what isn’t? A new study suggests that our brain uses categories it creates based on temporal relationships between people, objects, and actions — i.e., items that tend to—or tend not to—pop up near one another at specific times.

05/2013

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Why we remember more from young adulthood than from any other period

Autobiographical memory is an interesting memory domain, given its inextricable association with identity. One particularly fascinating aspect of it is its unevenness - why do we remember so little from the first years of life ('childhood amnesia'), why do we remember some periods of our life so much more vividly than others? There are obvious answers (well, nothing interesting happened in those other times), but the obvious is not always correct. Intriguing, then, to read about a new study that links those memorable periods to self-identity.

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Improving memory for specific events can help depression

November, 2012

A small study suggests that training in recalling personal memories can significantly help those with depression.

We know that people with depression tend to focus on, and remember, negative memories rather than positive. Interestingly, it’s not simply an emotion effect. People with depression, and even those at risk of depression (including those who have had depression), tend to have trouble remembering specific autobiographical memories. That is, memories of events that happened to them at a specific place and time (as opposed to those generalized event memories we construct from similar events, such as the ‘going to the dentist’ memory).

This cognitive difficulty seems to exacerbate their depression, probably through its effect on social encounters and relationships.

A new study, however, has found that a particular training program (“Memory Specificity Training”) can help both their memory for specific events and their symptoms of depression.

The study involved 23 adolescent Afghani refugees in Iran, all of whom had lost their fathers in the war in Afghanistan and who showed symptoms of depression. Half were randomly assigned to the five-week memory training program and half received no training.

The training program involved a weekly 80-minute group session, in which participants learned about different types of memory and memory recall, and practiced recalling specific memories after being given positive, neutral, and negative keywords.

Participants’ memory for specific events was tested at the start of the study, at the end of the five-week training period, and two months after the end of the training. Compared to the control group, those given the training were able to provide more specific memories after the training, and showed fewer symptoms of depression at the two month follow-up (but not immediately after the end of training).

The study follows on from a pilot study in which ten depressed female patients were given four weekly one-hour sessions of memory training. Improvements in memory retrieval were associated with less rumination (dwelling on things), less cognitive avoidance, and improvements in problem-solving skills.

It’s somewhat unfortunate that the control group were given no group sessions, indeed no contact (apart from the tests) of any kind. Nevertheless, and bearing in mind that these are still very small studies, the findings do suggest that it would be helpful to include a component on memory training in any cognitive behavioral therapy for depression.

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Quick therapy may reduce post-traumatic stress when delivered immediately

July, 2012

A pilot study supports the value of brief cognitive therapy for victims of traumatic events, when delivered as soon as possible after the event. The benefit appears greatest for sexual assault victims.

A new study has found that, when delivered quickly, a modified form of prolonged exposure therapy reduces post-traumatic stress reactions and depression.

The study involved 137 patients being treated in the emergency room of a major trauma center in Atlanta. The patients were chosen from survivors of traumatic events such as rape, car or industrial accidents, and shooting or knife attacks. Participants were randomly assigned to either receive three sessions of therapy beginning in the emergency department (an average of 12 hours after the event), or assessment only. Stress reactions were assessed at 4 and 12 weeks, and depression at baseline and 4 weeks.

Those receiving the therapy reported significantly lower post-traumatic stress at 4 weeks and 12 weeks, and significantly lower depression at 4 weeks. Analysis of subgroups revealed that the therapy was most effective in rape victims. In the cases of transport accidents and physical (non-sexual) assault, the difference between therapy and assessment-only was only barely significant (for transport at 4 weeks) or non-significant. In both subgroups, the effect was decidedly less at 12 weeks than at 4 weeks.

The therapy, carried out by trained therapists, involved participants describing the trauma they had experienced while the therapist recorded the description. The bulk of the hour-long session was taken up with reliving and processing the experience. There were three sessions spaced a week apart. The patients were instructed to listen to their recordings every day, and 85% were compliant. The therapists also explained normal reactions to trauma, helped the patients look at obtrusive thoughts of guilt or responsibility, and taught them a brief breathing or relaxation technique and self care.

While this study doesn’t itself compare the effects of immediate vs delayed therapy, the assumption that delivering the therapy so soon after the trauma is a crucial factor in its success is in line with other research (mainly to do with fear-conditioning in rodent and human laboratory studies). Moreover, while brief cognitive-behavioral therapy has previously been shown to be effective with people diagnosed with acute stress disorder, such therapy is normally begun some 2-4 weeks after trauma, and a study of female assault survivors found that although such therapy did indeed accelerate recovery compared with supportive counseling, after 9 months, PTSD severity was similar in both groups.

Another, severe, limitation of this study is that the therapy involved multiple items. We cannot assume that it was the repeated re-experiencing of the event that is critical.

However, this study is only a pilot study, and its findings are instructive rather than decisive. But at the least it does support the idea that immediate therapy is likely to help victims of trauma recover more quickly.

One final, important, note: It should not, of course, be assumed that simply having the victim describe the events — say to police officers — is in itself therapeutic. Done badly, that experience may itself be traumatic.

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