Autobiographical Memory

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Autobiographical memory is the psychological history of the self. It consists of memories of personal experiences—episodic memories—and knowledge of the self or autobiographical knowledge: for example, schools we attended, people we had relationships with, places we have lived, places we have worked, and so on (Conway, 2001; Conway and Pleydell-Pearce, 2000; and McAdams, 2001). It is critical for personal identity, forming the basis of the self and binding self-conceptions to reality. Psychiatric illnesses or brain damage can disrupt the connections that bind self to reality through memory, leading to a loss of personal history and the attendant delusions, confabulations, and false beliefs.

The Nature of Autobiographical Memory and Its Relation to Self

Autobiographical knowledge encompasses far more than memory: It includes statements, propositions, declarations, and beliefs about the self, often accompanied by generic and/or specific (mainly visual) images of details of prior experience. Autobiographical knowledge is distinct from sensory perceptual episodic memories, which represent details of actual experience (Conway, 2001). In the formation of an autobiographical memory, autobiographical knowledge becomes linked to episodic memories (Conway and Pleydell-Pearce, 2000). Memory formation leads to recollective experience, a sense or feeling of the self in the past (Tulving, 1985; Wheeler, Stuss, and Tulving, 1997), and attention turns inward to the autobiographical memory and, perhaps, to other episodic memories and autobiographical knowledge. Of course, full autobiographical memory formation does not have to take place, and autobiographical knowledge and episodic memory can be processed independently.

Conway and Pleydell-Pearce (2000) apply the term the working self to the control structure that modulates this whole system of autobiographical memory formation—the dynamic combining of autobiographical knowledge with episodic memories. The working self consists of an active goal hierarchy (only parts of which are consciously accessible), models or conceptions of the self, and other forms of self-knowledge that facilitate access to autobiographical knowledge structures. New autobiographical knowledge and episodic memories are formed (encoded) through the working self, which also influences memory construction by controlling input to the knowledge base and by evaluating output (activated autobiographical knowledge). The working self may even exercise inhibitory control over the knowledge base (Conway and Pleydell-Pearce, 2000).

Autobiographical Memory Across the Lifespan

The working self—goal hierarchy and self-conceptions—probably first emerges in some coherent form as the infant develops, in its second year, the capacity for objective and subjective self-awareness in the form of conceptions of "I" and "me." (Howe and Courage, 1997). Children as young as thirty months have detailed autobiographical memories (Fivush, Hadden, and Reese, 1996), although these are not ususally accessible in adulthood. Undoubtedly the working self and its relation to autobiographical memory changes during childhood and perhaps stabilises into an enduring form only in late adolescence and early adulthood (Erikson, 1950).

These periods of development of the self are reflected in the lifespan-retrieval curve that arises from older adults' (about thirty-five years and older) free or cued recall of autobiographical memories (Franklin and Holding, 1977; Fitzgerald and Lawrence, 1984; Rubin, Wetzler, and Nebes, 1986; Rubin, Rahhal, and Poon, 1998). This technique plots the age of encoding of memories; as shown in Figure 1, the lifespan-retrieval curve consists of three periods: childhood amnesia, (from birth to approximately five years of age), reminiscence bump (from ten to thirty years), and the period of recency (from the present declining back to the period of the reminiscence bump).

There have been many attempted theoretical explanations of childhood amnesia (Pillemer and White, 1989), but most founder on young children's capacity for a wide range of specific episodic memories and detailed autobiographical knowledge (Fivush et al., 1996). Explanations that center on changes in intellect, language, and emotional development fail simply because apparently normal autobiographical memories are typically accessible before the age of five and only after that seem to submerge in a general forgetfulness; it seems unlikely that an increase in general functioning would make unavailable already accessible memories. Hence there is no compelling explanation for this component of the lifespan-retrieval curve, which remains a challenge to autobiographical memory researchers.

The reminiscence bump has also attracted its share of theories (Rubin, Rahhal, and Poon, 1998). One is that this period endures in memory because it is suffused with novel experiences. An alternative explanation holds that although only a small percentage of experiences during the reminiscence bump are novel events, they survive because of their uniqueness in the formation of a person's life circumstances and interests (Fitzgerald, 1988); on this view, it is the high accessibility of memories from this period that accounts for their durability (Conway and Pleydell-Pearce, 2000). Perhaps many memories from the period of the reminiscence bump are of "self-defining" experiences (Fitzgerald, 1988; Singer and Salovey, 1993) and have a powerful effect in binding the working self to a specific reality. But this period, like chlidhood amnesia, has yet to find a definitive explanation for its relation to memory.

The recency component of the lifespan-retrieval curve (see Figure 1) can be simply explained as a period of forgetting: recently encoded memories, whose accessibility is retained for a longer interval, are subject to decay and/or interference and so become progressively less accessible. This is a familiar, often-observed pattern of retention. One might wonder, however, why such memories or salient experiences should be "forgotten" in this way. If older adults are expressly instructed to recall autobiographical memories from this period of forgetting, there are apparently plenty of available memories (Holmes and Conway, 1999). Thus, this seems a matter not of forgetting but rather of bias or preference in access to memories. It may be that the recency portion of the lifespan-retrieval curve reflects a lowering in the self-relevance of memories of recent experiences and hence a lowering in their accessibility rather than complete forgetting.

Autobiographical Memory and Personality

The working self increases the accessibility of goal-related autobiographical knowledge. Markus (1977) found preferential access to memories of experiences congruent with central self-schema, those that are critical to someone's sense of independence or dependence. McAdams (1982) identified individuals with a strong intimacy motivation or with a distinctive power motivation and found that the intimacy-motivation group recalled peak experiences with a preponderance of intimacy themes compared to individuals who scored lower on this motivation, who showed no memory bias. Similarly, the power-motivation group recalled peak experiences with strong themes of power and satisfaction. Subsequently, McAdams, Diamond, de Aubin, and Mansfield, (1997) examined the influence of the Eriksonian notion of generativity (Erikson, 1963) on the life stories of middle-aged adults. Generativity refers to nurturing and caring for those things, products, and people that have the potential to outlast the self. Those individuals who were judged high in generativity, who had a commitment story, were found to recall a preponderance of events highly related to aspects of generativity. In contrast, those participants without a prominent commitment story showed no such bias. In a similar way work by Woike and her colleagues has further established the connection between personality and memory (Woike, 1995; Woike, Gershkovich, Piorkowski, and Polo, 1999). Woike and colleagues (1999) investigated groups of individuals classified as "agentic" (concerned with personal power, achievement, and independence) or as "communion" (concerned with relationships, interdependence, and others). Agentic types consistently recalled emotional memories of events that involved issues of agency (mastery, humiliation). In contrast, communal types recalled emotional memories featuring others, often significant others, in acts of love and friendship. These and a range of findings from other studies (McAdams, 2001) all show a that the dominant motives or goals of the self make memories of goal-relevant experiences highly accessible.

Autobiographical Memory in Distress

Brain injury can impair autobiographical memory in various ways (Conway and Fthenaki, 2000). Injuries to regions of the frontal lobes often lead to a clouding or loss of detailed memories. In more extreme cases patients may confabulate, constructing autobiographical knowledge into plausible but false memories. Patients with damage to the temporal lobes and underlying structures in the limbic system, especially the hippocampal formation, may lose the ability to form new memories while retaining access to at least some preinjury memories. Those with damage to posterior regions of the brain, regions involved in visual processing (occipital lobes) may lose the ability to generate visual images of the past and, because of this, become amnesic. Their amnesia occurs because the episodic content of autobiographical memories is predominantly encoded in the form of visual images. When the ability to generate visual images is compromised or lost because of brain damage, then access to specific details of the past held in episodic images is also lost.

In psychiatric illness a common occurrence is that of a severe clouding of autobiographical memory, resulting in overgeneral memories. For instance, in clinical depression patients recall many memories that lack detail and are much more schematic than typical autobiographical memories. Thus, a patient asked to recall specific memories of his father could only recall general events such as "walks in the park after Sunday lunch" but was unable to generate a single specific memory of a single walk (Williams, 1996). Clouded, overgeneral memories have also been observed in schizophrenic patients and in patients suffering from obsessional-compulsive disorder. One possibility is that the complex control processes that modulate memory construction (working self) become attenuated in psychiatric illnesses and so can no longer form fully detailed memories.


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Martin A.Conway