Autobiographical Memory

What is Autobiographical Memory?

The term autobiographical memory is used to focus attention upon an individual’s record of his own personal experiences. As such it is formed by different types of representation from specific personal events (episodic components) to general knowledge about oneself (semantic component).

Autobiographical memory has been defined as recollected events that belong to a person’s past. In other words, autobiographical memories are recollections of personally meaningful events that are used to construct one’s life history (Rubin, 2005). As such, the memories formed are a reflection of a person’s self-concept Opens in new window as well as their relationship with significant others.

Autobiographical memory may be best described as involving the remembrances of events that have been personally experienced (Neisser, 1986).

When we remember the events that make up the stories of our life by using “mental time travel” to place ourselves back into a specific situation, we are experiencing autobiographical memory.

Personally experienced events are structured in autobiographical memory by hierarchically ordered types of memories for events that vary in their scope and specificity and this structure is organized along temporal and thematic pathways that guide the retrieval process.

Although there have been slightly different views regarding the various types of memories that people recover when remembering their personal past, in general there are three main types (Barsalou, 1988; Conway, 1996).

The most general type of memory, which comprises the top and middle of the hierarchy, is for extended events. Memories for extended events reveal the temporal nature of autobiographical memory, as such events are extended in time for periods as long as many years to as short as just a few days.

Comprising the middle of the hierarchy are memories for summarized events that emphasize the thematic aspects of autobiographical memory. In remembering summarized events, individuals are considering the common themes that underlie events of the same kind.

Finally, the most detailed type of memory at the bottom of the hierarchy is for specific events. Memories of specific events include the perceptual and episodic information that provides a sense of relieving a particular episode as it originally occurred.

Therefore, autobiographical memory structure may be characterized as a hierarchical network that includes extended, summarized and specific events (Belli, 1998). It permits retrieval of past events through multiple pathways that work top-down in the hierarchy, sequentially within life themes that unify extended events and in parallel across life themes that involve contemporaneous and sequential events.

Autobiographical memories are traditionally indexed by providing participants with cue words and requesting recall of a specific personal memory in response to them (Rubin, 1986).

Specificity of memories is defined as the participant’s being able to “give a date, day of the week or time of the day when the episode occurred” (Williams & Scott, 1988).

With respect to remembering when events happened, people tend to report events as having occurred more recently than in actuality, a phenomenon known as forward telescoping (Bachman & O’Malley, 1981; Rubin & Baddeley, 1989).

Finally, autobiographical memories can be experienced in two ways:

  1. from a field perspective, which is remembering an event as if you are seeing it, and
  2. from an observer perspective — seeing yourself in the event.