Autobiographical Memory

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Simon Hanley

What is autobiographical memory? Illustrate your answer with some examples from research

“Autobiographical memory is a memory system consisting of episodes recollected from an individual’s life, based on a combination of episodic and semantic memory” (Williams, H. L., Conway, M. A., & Cohen, G. 2008). As you can see from this definition, autobiographical memory is a very broad topic when it comes down to memory. Some textbooks describe autobiographical memory to be just another name for episodic memory. In general, autobiographical memory is memory related to the self; it can help explain why it is we don’t remember memories from early childhood and why it is we can remember certain memories better than others. To understand this we must look into what exactly autobiographical memory is, how’s its formed and its functions.

Autobiographical memory can be split into four parts, the first being the differentiation between noetic and autonoetic memory. The former made up of biological facts such as where you were born and the latter recollecting your first day at school. The second part argues the difference between copies and reconstructions of an episode. Copies are clear memories of an episode that contain lots of sensual properties. Reconstrucions on the other hand, use interpreations with the help of hindsight to create new information and are not true to the original memory. The third part explains how memories could be specific or generic. Specific memories are recollections of certain events such as your 10th birthday. Generic memories are more vague and only provide a small amount of detail such as a day at work. The final part of autobiographical memory is that experiences can be represented from a different persepctive, these being field and observer. Field memories are recalled from the original viewpoint from a first person point of view. Observer memories are the opposite in the sense that these memories are recalled in a third person point of view.

In the definition above it is said that episodic and semantic memory combined are the bases of autobiographical memory. Tulving (1972) argued that there must be a difference for memory of personal experience and general knowledge. He explained that “episodic memory recieves and stores information about temporally dated episodes or events, and temporal-spatial relations among these events” meaning that events have been experienced at a certain time or place. Thus, episodic memory is organised chronalogicaly or spatially and originates from personal experience. Tulving then describes semantic memory as “the memory necessary for the use of language” and consists of general knowledge and facts. These are then stored long-term. Both semantic and episodic memories can interact with each other. Despite this, the difference between the two is that they are both organised and sourced differently. Semantic memory being introduced from repeated experience and is universal wheras episodic memory is much more personal. Also these two memories bring to light that the things we’ve learnt are then used differently. However, Tulving (1983, 1984) went back to his work and explained that episodic memory was in fact part of semantic memory and not an independent system. This was due to work he discovered from studies of amnesia. It seems the debate between the two types of memories is ongoing. Martin and Chao (2001) looked at the regions of the brain to distinguish between semantic and episodic memory. In their research, it showed that anterior and inferior prefrontal region are involved in semantic processes. The evidence for this “showed that the left inferior prefrontal cortex (LIPC) is more active when subjects make semantic judgements to words than when they make nonsemantic judgements to the same word”.

Self is a huge factor when it comes to autobiographical memory. Events and episodes that have occurred in a person’s life distinguish them from...
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