Retrospective memory

What is memory?

In the field of psychology, memory is characterized as the process by which the human mind encodes stores and retrieves information. Information is first encoded through a process involving sensory information. It is then stored, which means that the information is maintained over a consistent period of time. Finally, the information is retrieved from storage consciously or unconsciously. The two common types of memory are short term memory and long term memory. Short term memory refers to memory which has a retrieval period of up to one minute, while long term memory can be retrieved for years afterward.

What is retrospective memory?

Retrospective memory is characterized as memory which involves experiences which occurred, were experienced or were encountered during the past. Retrospective memory in humans refers to any people, events, words, or other types of experiences which were in same way encountered by an individual at some point during the past. Retrospective memory encompasses all other types of memory which may involve the memory or recollection of past events, including but not limited to episodic memory and procedural memory.

The most common type of retrospective memory is retrospective episodic memory, or memory of events which personally occurred or were personally experienced in the past of an individual. The concept of mental time travel falls under this category. Endel Tulvig, who developed this concept, characterizes mental time travel as the ability for someone to mentally project themselves back in time to relive their past experiences by using retrospective episodic memory. Mental time travel, however, is not simply remembering a past event through retrospective memory. It is characterized as mentally reliving the past experience and through that reliving, re-experiencing emotions and feelings which occurred during that particular memory in the past. Some researchers believe that mental time travel involves conscious awareness in order to relive the past experience, although recent research has indicated that mental time travel does–or at least, in some cases, can–occur during an involuntary process. Involuntary mental time travel may be experienced by people with post-traumatic stress disorder or other stress related memory disorders which can cause them to relive painful experiences or stressful experiences in their past.

Mental time travel is often linked to memory triggers which can cause an individual to think back on a particular memory which occurred during their past and cause them to relive that memory. A common example of mental time travel occurs when an individual experiences a certain scent which is tied to a memory from their past. For example, someone may smell grilled barbecue food and mentally travel back to an outdoor barbecue where they had a fight with a spouse or had a wonderful time with family. The key to differentiating between regular retrospective episodic memories—simply recalling or thinking about past events—and mental time travel lies in how that memory is processed. When a memory is simply recalled, it is recalled through generally factual information—that is, “this happened, then that happened, and I said this, and she said that.” Mental time travel, however, involves recalling sensory information and emotional information which allows the individual to relive that experience. They don’t just think “she said this,” they can mentally hear the “she” saying what was said in the past, and they once again feel how they felt during that moment.

Factors affecting retrospective memory

There are many factors which can potentially affect retrospective memory. Retrospective memory is generally affected in one of two ways: the ability to recall retrospective memory can be affected as well as how retrospective memory is recalled—or how it has been remembered or processed—can be affected.

The most common factors which can affect retrospective memory are age, sex, and emotional trauma. Age is sometimes considered to be the most significant factor that can have an effect on all times of memory, including retrospective memory. In general, the older an individual is, the more difficult it becomes to remember things. This occurs because, as human beings age, the ventricles in the brain get larger while the brain itself gets functionally smaller. Certain lobes of the brain which affect retrospective memory are prone to decreasing in size at a more rapid pace in some people, which can affect their ability to recall events in their past and even to recall personal experiences.

Some researchers believe that the sex of an individual can also have an impact on how well retrospective memories are form and how easily or readily they are recalled. Experiences on the subject have shown that women may find it easier to remember verbal episodic memories–such as words, pictures, everyday activities–as well as memories involving verbal and visuospatial processing–such as remembering where an object as placed–as well as tasks that require no verbal processing, like recognizing a scent that is familiar to them. These experiments also showed that men were better at pure visuospatial processing, like remembering symbolic information or information that was non-linguistic. Researchers continue to study this possible discrepancy in how retrospective memories are processed in men and women, although some studies indicate that environmental factors, such as how women are raised versus how men are raised, may have an impact on their ability to recall certain retrospective memories.

Emotional trauma has also been shown to have an impact on retrospective memories in two key ways.

The first way that emotional trauma can impact retrospective memories is by causing them to be forgotten. Motivated forgetting refers to the tendency of older human beings to forget negative memories in factor of positive memories because these positive memories produce more positive and pleasurable emotions than the recall of negative retrospective memories.

The second way that emotional trauma can impact retrospective memories is by causing them to become more intense or impossible to forget. Many people who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder re-live negative, high-stress memories through flashbacks or nightmares, which make it incredibly difficult if not impossible to forget the memories or dull their intensity.

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