Is Autobiographical memory accurate?

What is autobiographical memory?

Autobiographical memory is one type of memory system which is defined and characterized as a memory system which consists of various episodes or memories which have been recollected; these episodes or memories are a combination of both episodic–or personal and specific–and semantic–or general knowledge–memories. Autobiographical memories and the system within which they are contained are often used in everyday life to recall events which have occurred in the past in a specific order; for example, someone may be thinking about their childhood, then their young adulthood, then their adulthood, and so on. Autobiographical memories are often classified within this memory system under various themes and clusters which relate these memories of personal episodes to one another. For example, autobiographical memories are often broken into lifetime periods; these lifetime periods are made up of all information which is related to a specific period or “theme” within an individuals’ life. Lifetime periods tend to vary from person to person but typically include common themes such as childhood or elementary school, high school, college years, married life, and so on–through lifetime periods can also consist of more emotional, specific and personal themes such as “When my life started to go downhill,” or “when things started to turn around.”

Essentially, autobiographical memories are the memories of the “self.” The self is, loosely defined, what someone is, what they were, and what they could be in the future—the “self” not only includes personal characteristics and experiences but all of the other information which makes up the self. The types of autobiographical memories which are formed, and how they are classified, can often reveal information about the “self” of an individual. For example: Someone whose strongest autobiographical memories are those related to romantic endeavors and closeness may be said to appreciate being close to other people and to require relationships in order to feel happy; or at least, to need an appreciative relationship to feel happy.

Is autobiographical memory accurate?

Although autobiographical memory is one of the most common types of memories formed in the mind, they are also often considered controversial. This is because many people contest the accuracy of autobiographical memories—and, considering how often autobiographical memories are used in the outside world, this inaccuracy can mean more than simply remembering the wrong details of a favorite birthday party or other trivial matters. One concrete example of the use of autobiographical memories occurs in the study of history; most of what historians know about history tends to come from firsthand accounts, memoirs, journals, and so on. All of these primary sources are a result of autobiographical memory—how a housewife records events which occurred daily during WW2 is an example of autobiographical memory at work, as is how an English lord recounts the occurrences at the court of Henry VIII. What someone remembers, and how they remember it, is an essential form of study—not just for historians but memory researchers as well.

Autobiographical memory can be influenced by a number of different factors. It is important for researchers, historians, and anyone else dealing with autobiographical memories to understand what factors can affect these memories, how they can affect them, and how the truth—or falsehood—of these memories may be understood.

Factors which can affect autobiographical memory

There are in fact numerous factors which can have an effect on autobiographical memory. Some of these factors can affect memories as they are being formed, while still others have a greater impact during recollection or recall. The most common factor which is known to have an effect on the accuracy of autobiographical memory is age. Age is a factorwhichbeen shown in various studies to produce the most noticeable impact on the accuracy of autobiographical memories.


There are two noticeable impacts that age can have on the accuracy of autobiographical memory. The first impact is essentially scientific: the ability to remember older memories fades with age due to the shift in temporal distribution as the brain ages. Many people, as they get older, find it more difficult to remember childhood episodes and to recollect childhood memories; these memories may be vague or obscured or they may be filled in with false details, such as wrong dates or wrong people involved in the memory. IN general, it is believed that the brain obeys what is called the “retention function,” or recency effect; the retention function refers to the fact that it is much easier for memories of recent time, or about 20 to 30 recent years, to be stored and recollected than memories which occurred before this time period. The second noticeable impact occurs because, as people age, they tend to recall past memories–especially those which are past the recency effect, or more than 30 years prior to their current age–semantically rather than episodically. Essentially, this means that they are remembering their personally memories in a more detached and observant way, rather than remembering the episodes through their personal “self.”

For example: An individual breaks their arm in a violent accident at the age of 16. For the first few years, the memory will be seen episodically; they will recall how they felt in a more vivid and intense manner, and they may even once again “feel” the emotions—terror, fear, panic, and so on—that they did during this episode. But as the recency effect occurs—when they are 36 or 46—this memory will now be recalled semantically. Instead of remembering the event in a more vivid and personal way, the individual is likely to recall the event as more of a “story.” While they know that this episode happened to them, it is no longer recent in their memory and has been essentially shifted from an episodic, vivid memory to one that is considered general knowledge. They may acknowledge that they panicked after the incident, but they will no longer feel that flutter of panic as they would have twenty years prior.

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