Theories of autobiographical memory

Autobiographical memory is characterised by individual and gender differences resulting from significant social interchanges and cultural milieus experienced during the early-developmental and mature phases of life. The study is designed to explore the theoretical concepts encompassing the different types, neural basis and several theoretical dimensions pertaining to the autobiographical memory.

Keywords: autobiographical memory, cognitive behaviour, cognitive psychology

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Autobiographical Memory: A Theoretical Overview

Autobiographical memory can be defined as an explicit memory of the past events (Eysenck and Keane, 2005, p. 138) contributed by varying certain nostalgic factors including individual’s psychological understanding, complex spoken or sign language, remembrance of interaction with parents and others, specific style of talking, self-representation, personal perspectives and narrative comprehension and production (Williams, Conway & Cohen, 2008, p. 371). Numerous episodic memories or recollected events belonging to an individual’s past life are referred as autobiographical memories, which have been identified as more complex form of mummeries as compared to the laboratory memories in accordance with several studies conducted by a number of cognitive psychologists. The episodic memory experiment conducted in a laboratory is usually concerned with a brief set of memory comprising of events that are based on certain words that are presented on a computer screen which primarily involve the use of a single sensory modality; exhibiting a diminutive variation in spatial, temporal, emotional, and narrative content or context that is personally irrelevant to the subject (Bauer, Stennes & Haight, 2003, p. 29). On the other hand, in autobiographical memories events are recalled by involving multimodal senses as for example, taste, smell, touch, hearing, vision and kinesthesis which are meant to exhibit significant variation in content and context of spatial, temporal, emotional, and narrative reason and also demonstrate personal relevance (Eysenck and Keane, 2005, p. 138). Autobiographical memories involve real-world stimuli and are extremely complex thus, necessitating supplementary theoretical and methodological considerations that are usually not required in a laboratory study involving simplified stimuli (Diamond, Lee & Hayden, 2003, p. 831). The main objective of this study is to explore the theoretical underpinnings of cognitive psychology related to the autobiographical memory. The initial segment of the

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study aims to identify different types of autobiographical memory which extends to the middle segment which is meant to evaluate its neural basis. The later segment of the study explicates the different theories of the subject matter leading to the final conclusion.

Types of Autobiographical Memories

The systemic requirements pertaining to autobiographical memories involve individual senses as for example visualisation, hearing, and smell; a multimodal spatial system which reminds about the location concerning the objects and people; emotional system; linguistic system; a narrative system concerning casual interactions which does not necessarily involve the use of language (Rubin, Schrauf, & Greenberg, 2003, p. 889); and an explicit memory system which facilitates in coordinating information with the rest (Schrauf & Rubin, 2000, p. 621). Depending upon an individual’s memory, each of these systems tends to process, organise and assign roles that are exhibited by specific cognitive-behaviours. A number of instrumental studies are employed to document the evidences proffered by each system including cognitive-behavioural studies, individual differences research, neuro-anatomy, neuropsychology, and neuro-imaging studies that are all helpful in identifying the traces of events collected within the autobiographical memory of an individual. It has been studied that autobiographical memory itself, does not represents a single entity rather it is complimented by multiple systems; each demonstrating diverse roles, organisation and processing of the relevant data (Conway & Pleydell-Pearce, 2000, p. 267). The permanence of the autobiographical memory significantly relies on the continuity of these individual systems and their interaction with each other exactly similar to the fact how the recollected memories of an individual is a shared cultural knowledge obtained during the life span which subsequently attributes cultural expectations rather than individual’s autobiographical memory (Berntsen & Rubin, 2004, p. 430). Long term memory is

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principally divided into three major systems including implicit memory characterised by the memories relating to the performance of a task in the absence of conscious recollection; semantic memory characterised by factual reminiscence of events; and episodic memory characterised by the memories of information within specific time and space units (Eysenck & Keane, 2005, p. 194). Autobiographical memory is predominantly concerned with both the episodic and semantic memories which are further classified into three sub-types including factual memory, self-schemata, generic memory and specific memories (Conway & Pleydell-Pearce, 2000, p. 261) that are explicated as follows:

Factual Memory

The concept of factual memory has not been widely appraised within the theoretical paradigm of autobiographical memory. Factual memory is primarily concerned with the immediate facts and present happenings.

Self Schemata

Self-schemata as the name indicates, is the central conception within cognitive therapy and is characterised by self-knowledge or information about one’s own personality, nature or temperament; which is far more complex and contextualised as compared to the known facts but is much generalised as compared to specific or generic memories (Conway & Pleydell-Pearce, 2000, p. 264). Self-schemata are not just limited to a specific self-knowledge are the accumulated information connected to specific self-realisation which can be corresponded as facts or statements. The process involves economical organisation of information related to abstracted real-life experiences which greatly differs from the schematic knowledge and this divergence between original experiences and schematic knowledge transpires as the cognitive processes are likely to be influenced by the pre-established schemata similar to the encoding of an experience. It has been studied that the

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insistence and distortion of self-schemata may considerably vary depending upon an individual’s perceptions (Dalgleish, 2004, p. 233).

Generic Memories

Generic memories are much specific in comparison with the self-schemata as concerning the memories of repeated and similar experiences however, specific memories are less abstracted as compared to generic memories. The mechanism of generic memories greatly resembles with self-schemata as it involves stacking of analogous experiences. The most critical aspect of the generic memories is the sensory and visual-spatial components which significantly limits the stacking of experiences making it much more specific than self-schemata. A number of disorders especially depression is associated with a greater likelihood of recalling generic memories based slightly vague reminiscence of experiences.

Specific Memories

Strong sensory and visual-spatial components are the key characteristics of specific memories which facilitate in the recollection episodic events from an individual’s past life encompassing certain canonical categories of information such as ongoing activity, location, persons, other’s affect and own affect (Williams, Conway & Cohen, 2008, p. 376). There is a vast difference between specific and long-term specific memories as the most recent happenings can be recollected by most individuals retaining specific memories of the recent past however, the retention of long-term memories of that particular event, by each person is vitally dubious (Conway, 2005) as it has been studied that the specific memories of recent past belong to a different memory system than long term specific memories (Carver & Bauer, 2001, p. 728). The process of autobiographical reasoning stressing on the temporal, causal and thematic relationship and cultural interchanges develop narrative-like structures which are meant to form explicit linkage between several specific memories (Bluck & Habermas,

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2000, p. 140). The theory suggests that the memories of recent past are not subjected to schemata-driven reconstruction processes and therefore, specific memories can be considered as much accurate and less-biased.

Neural Basis of Autobiographical Memories

The theoretical underpinnings pertaining to the neural origins of autobiographical memory are briefly explicated as follows:


Mental simulation of probable future events can significantly help an individual to strategise and plan for the potential opportunities in pursuit of personal objectives and thereby, chances of failures can be minimised through consistent efforts. It has been studied that prospection is the concept of imagining oneself in future which subsequently allows an individual to engage in organised strategic behaviour to achieve pre-planned personal objectives (Bird & Reese 2006, p. 620). Remembering past events and futuristic thinking are both hypothesised to reflect the parallel course of action which has been explicated by the sequential distribution of self-generated probable future events that have been found to replicate the distribution of recollected past events of numerous individuals during their life cycle (Spreng & Levine, 2006, p. 1649). There is a possibility that the recollection of past memories and prospection of futuristic events might share neural substrate and similar mechanism as studies suggest that, a decreasing fashion of phenomenological richness (D’Argembeau & Van der Linden, 2004, p. 846) and episodic specificity with age (Addis, Wong, & Schacter, 2008, p. 1365) has been observed, in the past and future events.


In accordance with the cognitive theory both the ego-centric and allo-centric perspectives facilitate in imagining the current status of an individual and the desired

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objectives followed by specific routes to navigate spatial environments through topographical orientation (Bird & Reese 2006, p. 615). Lesser emphasis is drawn to an individual’s stance

as per the allo-centric perspective which is meant to identify the relation between landmarks with the help of engaging one’s mind to discover the future prospects that are substantially indifferent to the immediate environment or to visualise or map the environment (Bird & Reese 2006, p. 622).

Theory of Mind

Theory of mind facilitates in comprehending the social navigation process indicating that the communal interchanges between people are based on an individual’s perspectives that are greatly influenced by the pre-conceived notions and in order to predict the action and reaction of others, it is imperative to understand their perspective (Garfield, Peterson, & Perry, 2001). It has been studied that to understand others perspectives, individuals make efforts to self-project themselves by simulating the mindset of others (Blakemore & Decety, 200).

Default Mode

Functions of brain studied during the resting phase of an individual are usually referred as default mode (Mazoyer et al., 2001) which is characterised by the unprepared thoughts or mind wandering condition in which the brain is becomes stimulus-independent (Raichle et al., 2001) and could be irrational at times (Mason et al., 2007). Both the external or internal environment has no significant influence on the brain functioning of an individual in a resting phase however, an internal mode of cognition may become activated which allows an individual to self-projection or imagine one-self in a desired condition without being influenced by the respective environment (Gusnard, Akbudak, Shulman, & Raichle, 2001; Raichle & Gusnard, 2005).

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Theories of Autobiographical Memory Development

The theoretical underpinnings of the autobiographical memory development have experienced significant progression in context of explaining infantile amnesia which reflects the failure of adults to recall events from their early stages of life. It is quiet a mystery that children seem to remember a lot from their long-term memory bank however, as they grow old and reach the adulthood it becomes exceedingly difficult for them to recall their past memories specially pertaining to their early childhood.

Primary Influence Theories

During the beginning of pre-school period there is a lack of cognitive and social cognitive framework which is responsible for encoding memories which subsequently result in the failure of retrieving self-relevant memories in later stages of life. Mirror task of self-recognition (MSR) has been identified as the most vital instrument for the encoding and storage of the autobiographical memories (Carver & Bauer, 2001, p. 731). On the other hand, it has been hypothesised that self-recognition plays an integral role in retrieving the autobiographical memories however, children in early ages do not poses the ability to understand the fundamentals of nature, personality and character which makes it difficult for them to gain delayed self-recognition. Studies suggest that the memory bank becomes actively responses as soon as a child develops an understanding of one-self and achieves significant representational awareness agreeing to this, the cognitive-motivational theory of adults autobiographical memory presented by (Conway and Pleydell-Pearce 2000) suggest that self grounding is an essential part of retrieving the memories however, they further emphasised on the identification of goals and argued that the inability to reconstruct the memories in later stages of life has a very close link with the incongruity of self-goals with the encoding and retrieving period.

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Multiple influence theories

A number of studies concur with the former concept of insufficient cognitive or social-cognitive framework during early preschool years, is the vital cause interfering with the encoding and retrieval of autobiographical memories however; they further attempted to analyse the critical abilities of an individual to encode and retrieve the memories, in the larger social and linguistic realm for the child (Conway, Pleydell-Pearce & Whitecross, 2001, p. 495). Children are unable to comprehend with the causal-temporal sequence of events and cannot establish the order of self-relevant events into a chronological narrative which enables a frequent encoding and retrieval of autobiographical memories as the representational system largely depends upon linguistic abilities which subsequently develop after 4-5 years (Eysenck and Keane, 2005, p. 149). A number of theories also suggest that social interaction is another significant element to retrieve autobiographical memories and further argue that children develop their critical cognitive capacities through social interactions and reminiscing practices. Furthermore, parental cooperation in discussing, evaluating and elaborating the past events also facilitates in providing rich information which consequently develops in the retrieval of autobiographical memories. It has also been studied, that apart from linguistic aid children also necessitate a reason to learn and recall past events which could be strong social bonds and close relationships which greatly helps them in self-recognition process and the more they recognise oneself in their early childhood, the more it becomes easier to reminisce their autobiographical memories (Conway, Pleydell-Pearce & Whitecross, 2001, p. 450).

Social Cultural Developmental Theories

There are three significant arguments encompassing the social and cultural developmental theories pertaining to autobiographical memories including (i) gradual emergence of autobiographical memory across the preschool years; (ii) autobiographical

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memory system is highly reliant upon the language which is the vital tool for social interchanges; and (iii) autobiographical memory is characterised by cultural, gender, and individual differences across life that need significant explanation (Bamberg and Moissinac 2003, p. 398). It has been studied that the remembrance of events from a lifespan of a children and adult may considerably vary and it is quite evident that everybody is not capable of remembering more of events with identical detailing and in similar narrative way as expressed by others. This indicates that differences in both the course and time of emergence of the autobiographical memories and their eventual outcomes significantly vary depending upon age, sex, gender, personal experiences, social interactions and cultural differences (Fivush & Nelson, 2004, p. 575). The development system begins with the birth followed by toddler memories that are instituted through social interactions with parents, siblings and relatives, during which nascent conceptions are built in an individual’s mind which might be unconsciously penetrated within the memory bank. Studies also suggest that infants are very much aware of their environment and also have an idea of core self which has been essentially related to intentionality. It has been studied that infants as per their core self have determined goals and actions which is fuelled by the infusion of certain skills, emerging concepts and social experiences (Bamberg and Moissinac 2003, p. 398). The later phase after 4-5 years when the children respond to what they hear and start talking by using linguistic aids results in the preservation of a sound memory bank which can be encoded and retrieved later in life depending upon an individual’s capability to reminisce the autobiographical memories.

The Core Components of Developmental System

The key components of the development system facilitating the early development of memory base are characterised by the initiation of memories being stored within the memory

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bank of an unborn child. It has been studied that the unborn child are capable of differentiating and discriminating between the incoming information and are also capable to store the information over time. Children have been studied to have implicit memories that have been collected during the first trimester of pregnancy (Eysenck and Keane, 2005, p. 158) however, the remembrance of such memory can be extremely short. On the other hand, it has been studied that the time duration in which a child emits a previously conditioned response can be extended with the use of reminders thus, strengthening their memory base. The role of language is extremely significant in the retrieval and narration of autobiographical memories. It has been studied that language is significant in the retrieval of autobiographical memory in three particular ways including (i) it is involved in providing the organisational and evaluative attribute of autobiographical memory; (ii) it significantly helps in developing and maintain social interactions which subsequently results in the organised representation of past experiences especially for children; and (iii) it facilitates in growing the awareness of young children to preserve memory as a representation of past experience which can be evaluated from multiple subjective perspectives (Fivush, 2001, p. 51). Adult memory talk is the third vital component of developmental system in which mothers play an integral role in developing the memory system of their children as they are the initial point of contact to children, enabling them to understand their external environment and educating them to respond. There is a significant distinction between primary consciousness and symbolic consciousness however, it has been studied that the consciousness of the past is greatly responsible in the developmental system as it helps in defining the concept of present, past and future in the autobiographical memory (Edelman and Tononi 2000, p. 99). Finally, the self-recognition or self-in-time is a closely related concept contributing in the developmental system and it has been studied that to relate oneself in the past or in the

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present necessitates the clear-cut mapping of two distinct representations (Perner 2000, p. 212).

Conclusive Remarks

The memories associated with early stages of life can significantly help in gaining an insight oneself thus, providing the opportunities for emotional growth and development. In addition to this, self-recognition and self-knowledge tremendously help in improving the overall personality and temperament of an individual as the autobiographical memories can facilitate in defining personal lacking hence, enabling the individual to transform into a better human being. The study has successfully established the grounds for understanding different types and neural origins of the autobiographical memory and subsequently unfolded varying aspects of theoretical paradigms associated with the subject area indicating that the memory bank can be developed with growing age. Moreover, the study also reveals that social interchanges and cultural influences in early stages of life have significant impacts on the memory development system. To conclude, it can be instituted that cognitive psychology is a vast subject having wide-range of theories related to autobiographical memory; and this study within its limited scope attempted to address numerous speculative areas of the concerned theme.

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