The Three Components of Autobiographical Memory

What is autobiographical memory? How is it studied?

Autobiographical memory is one type of memory system; autobiographical memory is usually defined as consisting of various episodes which have been remembered, or recollected, from the life and experiences of an individual. These autobiographic memories are usually a combination of episodic or personal experiences and information, and semantic or general knowledge and experience, memories. Autobiographical memory is often studied through personal recollections, both verbal and written. Written recollections of autobiographical memory can be found in diaries, journals, blogs, and other forms of written material which are based on personal experience and personal memories.

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Within the field of memory research, autobiographical research is often studied through “control diaries.” In one such study, a group of memory research participants was required to keep a diary of particularly memorable everyday events over a series of weeks. The diaries are then a reflection of autobiographical memory; from these diaries, researchers can study the accuracy of autobiographical memory in several ones. One way, used during a popular study in 1986, involved creating two different foils in a recognition task based on autobiographical memories written in a diary: a foil which was entirely false and a foil which was somewhat altered. Against the foils which were entirely false, participants almost always recognized their autobiographical memory; but against the foils which were somewhat altered, participants were only correct in judging which was their original autobiographical memory about half the time.

Autobiographical knowledge base

The overall autobiographical knowledge base contains all knowledge which is considered to be “the self.” The autobiographical knowledge base is the knowledge base which contains all information on what the “self” is, what the “self” was, and what the “self” can or could be in the future. In a sense, the autobiographical knowledge base is a knowledge base of who we are, who we were, and who we could be. This base not only contains personal information but all other information which could help define the self. For example: The memory of sitting on a pier watching the sun set as a ten year old child contains information about the “self” in several ways: one, who the “self” was–in this case, the individual at ten years old–as well as where they were, the semantic knowledge of the pier–and what they were doing, the semantic knowledge of the sun set, and so on. Researchers tend to break up the autobiographical knowledge base into three different areas. These areas are called lifetime periods, general events, and event specific knowledge.

Lifetime periods

Within the field of autobiographical knowledge, lifetime periods are defined as one component of the autobiographical knowledge base. Lifetime periods are distinguished as being comprised of knowledge about a themed period of time in an individual’s life. These themed periods of time may vary depending on what an individual has done in their life as well as what time periods they considered to be important enough to group together in a broader category. Lifetime periods, within an autobiographical knowledge base, contain all thematic information related to that time period. For example: One common lifetime period includes a time period during which an individual attended college or university. This lifetime period could be called the “university period” or the “university theme.” The information contained within this theme would be related to what was done during that lifetime period, which it was done with, the types of relationships which formed or broke, where someone went, how they felt, and even more semantic knowledge such as what they learned or gained during that time.

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Lifetime periods can also be broken into sub periods, or sub lifetime periods. These sub lifetime periods tend to be more specific while the more general periods contain an overarching theme which can, if necessary, be broken into smaller pieces. For example: The lifetime period “When Everything Went Wrong” could be broken into the sub lifetime periods of “When I Flunked Out of College,” and “When My Girlfriend Broke Up With Me.” Both of these sub lifetime periods could also, if necessary, be broken into even smaller lifetime periods, such as “When I Failed My History Exam”–and so on.

General events

General events refer to autobiographical knowledge which is more specific than the broader category of lifetime periods. General events refer to the single representation of events which are repeated or in other words, a sequence of related events. Unlike lifetime periods, which tend to be broken up into specific time periods–such as youth, young adulthood, and so on–general events can be clustered together even if they occurred at completely different periods of time. When one general event is recalled, it essentially triggers a reaction or cues a reaction which brings up the recall of other general events within that same cluster. General events tend to fall into vivid categories, such as failing or succeeding at something; for example, a common general event cluster is called “the firsts.” “The firsts” refers to the general event category of the many “first times” that people experience throughout their lives. These “first times” are a major example of successfully completing a goal and can provide an excellent amount of information about the self to an individual. For example: An individual who recalls their very first kiss might then recall their first date or the first time they fell in love; or an individual who recalls the first time they won a race might remember their first ball game with their father, and so on.

Event specific knowledge

Event specific knowledge refers to particularly detailed information about specific, individual events which have been experienced during an individual’s life. Event specificknowledge is known to be especially vivid and as such, is usually experienced in the form of sensory perception–for example, someone remembering their favorite date with their current partner might re-experience the smells and sounds of that evening during the recall of their memory in a more vivid manner than they would other, less important memories.

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