Autobiographical Memory

What is autobiographical memory?

Autobiographical memory is characterized as a type of memory system which consists of various linear episodes or memories which occurred during an individual’s life. These episodes or memories are a combination of both semantic, and general knowledge, and episodic, or personal experience, memories.

Autobiographical memory, like an autobiography, refers to memories which are unique to the personal experience of an individual and how that individual experienced an event or incident, both personally and semantically; for example, an individual who remembers an incident where they fell from a tree as a child is remembering both semantically–remembering that it was a tree they fell from, remembering the color of the tree was green, and so on–and episodically, such as remembering that their neighbor ran to their aid and remembering that their mother screamed as it happened. The combination of these memories creates an autobiographical memory that, like an incident recorded in a literary autobiography, is unique to an individual’s personal experience.

Types of autobiographical memory

Although there are more than a dozen different subcategories of autobiographical memory, most types of autobiographical memory can be broken into one of seven general categories. These categories are: biographical memories, copies, reconstructions, specific memories, generic memories, field memories, and observer memories. Biographical memories are memories which contain information that is, more or less, “biographical.” Information such as your name, your birth date, where you were born, the names of your parents, the names of the first street you lived on–and so on–are all considered types of biographical memories. These memories are usually recalled for practical purposes, such as filling out a form that requires biographical information or introducing yourself to new people; biographical memories are also often recalled in conjunction with copies or reconstructions, to make the memories more detailed.

Copies are memories which are considered to be a vivid “copy” of an experienced incident or episode. Copies are usually quite detailed and involve remembering a significant amount of visual, auditory and other sensory related details. For example, someone who is remembering their first kiss may bring up a “copy” memory which allows them to remember the sights, sounds, even the smells which occurred during the recollection of that memory. Reconstructions are memories which are considered to be rebuilt “copy” memories, which are recollected not as a vivid or raw recollection but as a reconstruction made with interpretations formed after the fact. For example, someone who has recently been in a fight with a particular person might form a reconstruction of an earlier incident and re-interpret that particular person’s actions as malevolent or otherwise mean, despite not experiencing this interpretation during the raw event.

Specific autobiographical memories are memories which contain specific, detailed information about an event, while generic autobiographical memories contain only vague information about an event or experience. For example: A specific memory about a party might recall the food being served, the music being played, the conversations which were had, and so on, while a generic memory about that same party might remember that the party occurred, there was dancing, conversation, but nothing too specific can be recalled.

A field memory is a memory which is recalled from its original perspective or, to be more specific, from the first person perspective of the individual. An observer memory is a memory which is recalled from a third person point of view, or not from the perspective of the individual. Observer memories tend to occur more often in old age, when the memories from youth are more faded and less detailed as they once were; they also tend to be reconstructions rather than copies, since time and age adds perspective and interpretation to raw memories more readily. For example: An individual who is 16 years old might remember attending a memorable picnic as a 10 year old from a field or first person perspective because a significant amount of time has not passed; while that same individual might later remember the same picnic through an observer point of view and also apply another interpretation to the event, such as remembering it more fondly or wistfully in old age than they did as a teenager.

Emotion and memory

One of the most significant factors which can have an impact on autobiographical memory is emotion. Emotion can affect the way that an autobiographical memory is actually encoded in the brain as well as how it is later retrieved. Emotion can affect how well a memory is first encoded into the brain; studies have shown that positive emotions, such as happiness or joy, make it easier for the brain to properly encode memories with an accurate amount of detail. On the other hand, negative emotions have been shown to cause significant impairment in the ability for the brain to encode emotions, especially autobiographical emotions. Someone who is depressed, for example, will often find it difficult to remember incidents which they were able to recall when they were not under a period of emotional depression.

Emotion can also affect autobiographical memory after it has been encoded; the way that memories are retrieved and then interpreted or viewed can also be influenced by emotions. An emotional memory tends to be more vivid and detailed than a non-emotional memory because of the intense feelings associated with the experience that created the memory itself; one of the reasons for this is that emotional memories are more often recalled than non-emotional memories. For example, someone is more likely to revisit a memory about heartbreak than they are about the time they saw someone wearing neon-orange pants at a chapel wedding, because the heartbreak is associated with their intense emotions while the pants, although noticeable, were not.

Memories associated with positive emotions tend to be better remembered than memories associated with negative emotions, especially in people who report high self-esteem or high personal moods; this may be because people with high self-esteem are more likely to revisit memories associated with positive emotions than they are negative emotions.

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