Autobiographical Memory

According to Conway and Rubin (1993), "autobiographical memory is memory for the events of one's life" (p. 103). There is much overlap between autobiographical memory and episodic memory (see Chapter 7), in that the recollection of personal events and episodes occurs with both types of memory. However, there can be episodic memory without autobiographical memory (Nelson, 1993, p. 357): "What I ate for lunch yesterday is today part of my episodic memory, but being unremarkable in any way it will not, I am sure, become part of my autobiographical memory—it has no significance to my life story." There can also be autobiographical memory without autobiographical facts "that are not accompanied by a feeling of re-experiencing or reliving the past" (Wheeler, Stuss, & Tulving, 1997, p. 335).

Autobiographical memory relates to our major life goals, our most powerful emotions, and our personal meanings. As Cohen (1989) pointed out, our sense of identity or self-concept depends on being able to recollect our personal history. Individuals (e.g., stroke victims) who cannot recall the events of their lives have effectively lost their identity.

How can we best study autobiographical memory? There are often numerous errors in autobiographical memory when people are asked specific questions. For example, up to 40% of people do not report minor hospitalisations when asked only one year later! Belli (1998) recommended the use of event-history calendars. Individuals are presented with several major themes (e.g., places of residence; work), and asked to identify the month and the year of all relevant events. A complete pattern of the individual's life over time is gradually constructed. Belli (1998, p. 403) concluded: "Traditional survey questions.tend to segment the various themes of respondents' pasts. Event-history calendars, on the other hand, encourage respondents to appreciate the interrelatedness of various themes which serve to cue memories both within and across these themes."

Structure of autobiographical memory

We have an enormous amount of information stored away in autobiographical memory, ranging from the highly specific to the very general, and from the fairly trivial to the very important. In order to uncover the structure or organisation of autobiographical memory, we can observe the patterns of retrieval of personal information. Conway (1996) used such information to identify three levels of autobiographical memory:

• Lifetime periods: substantial periods of time defined by major ongoing situations (e.g., living with someone; working for a given firm).

• General events: repeated and/or extended events (e.g., a holiday in Austria) covering a period of days to months; general events are related to each other as well as to lifetime periods.

• Event-specific knowledge: images, feelings, and details relating to general events and spanning time periods from seconds to hours.

Each level has its own special value. Every life-time period contains its own set of themes, goals, and emotions, and indexes a given subset of the autobiographical knowledge base. This applies even to overlapping lifetime periods. Lifetime periods are more effective cues to many kinds of memory retrieval than are other cues. Conway (1996) told participants to retrieve specific events in response to cue words (e.g., restaurant). The participants reported that they often worked through lifetime periods and general events before reporting the details of specific events. The cue words were preceded by a prime referring to the relevant life-time period (e.g., secondary school) or by a neutral prime. The mean time to retrieve a specific event was 2.7 seconds when a neutral prime was used, compared to only 1.8 seconds when a lifetime period prime was used.

Conway (1996) found in other studies that it took people much longer to retrieve autobiographical memories than other kinds of information. For example, they took about four seconds to retrieve autobiographical memories but only about one second to verify personal information (e.g., name of their bank). According to Conway, it takes longer to produce autobiographical memories because they are constructed rather than reproduced. Conway found that the information contained in autobiographical memories produced on two occasions differed considerably (even when only a few days separated the occasions), which is consistent with the notion that autobiographical memories are constructed.

When people are asked to produce autobiographical memories in a fairly unconstrained way, most of the memories produced consist of general events. Why is this? The information in general events is neither very general (as with lifetime periods) nor very specific (as with event-specific knowledge). Anderson and Conway (1993) studied the relevance of temporal information and distinctive knowledge to the organisation of general events. When participants were asked to provide information about a general event, they typically started with the most distinctive details, and then worked through the event in chronological order.

The importance of distinctive knowledge was also shown in another experiment by Anderson and Conway (1993). The knowledge in general events was accessed more rapidly via distinctivedetail cues than by other cues. According to Conway and Rubin (1993, p. 106), "general events are organised in terms of contextualising distinctive details that distinguish one general event from another, and which also represent the theme or themes of a general event...this thematic organisation is also supplemented by temporal organisation, and the order in which action sequences occurred is, at least partly, preserved in general events."

Brewer (1988) studied event-specific knowledge. Participants received randomly timed signals indicating that they should record their current thoughts and actions. They were later tested for their recall of these events by being given a cue. Locations were remembered best, followed by actions and thoughts. Thoughts were best cued by actions, and vice versa. Recall of sensory details was highly predictive of accurate recall of other aspects of the event. When recall of an event was very good, participants generally reported that the sensory re-experience closely resembled the actual experience.

Barsalou (1988), Conway (1996), and others have suggested that autobiographical memories possess a hierarchical structure. Barsalou (1988) suggested that there are hierarchical "partonomies", with event-specific knowledge forming part of a general event, and each general event forming part of a lifetime period. Evidence from brain-damaged patients supports this viewpoint. According to Conway and Rubin (1993), there are no reports of amnesic patients who can retrieve episodespecific knowledge but who cannot retrieve knowledge about general events and lifetime periods, and there are no patients who can retrieve general event knowledge but not lifetime period knowledge. Thus, information at the top of the hierachy (i.e., lifetime period knowledge) is the least vulnerable to loss, and that at the bottom of the hierarchy (i.e., episode-specific knowledge) is the most vulnerable. Presumably the fact that we possess enormous amounts

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