For example, episodic memories are basically memories of the experiences and events that occur during our lifetimes (Tulving, 1972). Semantic memory is suggested to derive from our episodic memories. When our brains process an event, they are processing many different sensory elements. For example, a beach bonfire party might include music (sound), the warmth of your significant other’s hand (touch), and the scent of the bonfire (smell). The event can become less salient after a period of time. With this desensitization, the event’s sensory components are less likely to need support to put each sensory memory together to form the cohesive memory of the party. This process is supported by a part of the brain called the hippocampus. However, emotions, false memories (section 3.5), depression (Whalley, Rugg, Smith, Dolan, & Brewin, 2009), post-traumatic stress disorder (Vasterling, Verfaellie, & Sullivan, 2009), and anxiety (Airaksinen, Larsson, & Forsell, 2005), as well as other conditions, can each influence effective and accurate schema development.
The following section will introduce you to autobiographical memories, a type of memory supported by episodic memory (Nelson & Fivush, 2004). Autobiographical memories are recollections of past experiences that contribute to one’s sense of self. These memories include the emotions that may describe or explain individuals’ lives, their experiences, and their ideas about who they are. Autobiographical memories are stored with long-term memories but are housed within separate domains, depending on the core component that the memory captures. Autobiographical memories encompass our personally experienced past events such as emotional memories (e.g., grief, anger, or love), self-descriptions (e.g., where you live or who your parents are), and event memories (e.g., graduations or weddings). (See Figure 3.4.)
Figure 3.4: Autobiographical memories
Autobiographical memories house memories about one’s self, including emotions felt, self-descriptions, and important life events.
A collage of three images: a young girl dabbing paint on her father’s face, a female soldier and a young girl hugging, and a senior couple at a wedding ceremony on a beach. The images represent a sample of different autobiographical memories, which can include emotional experiences, views about self, and specific and general life events.
© Bridgepoint Education, Inc.; Images top to bottom: Kuzmichstudio/iStock/Thinkstock, IPGGutenbergUKLtd/iStock/Thinkstock, and Zinkevych/iStock/Thinkstock.
The excerpts in this section are from Fivush, Habermas, Waters, and Zaman (2011). Fivush and colleagues discuss how the meanings we give our autobiographical memories affect our learning effectiveness as well as our identity development. As you read this section, evaluate your own autobiographical memories and consider how they affect your decision making and day-to-day activities. Perhaps you remember certain events in detail, while others seem much foggier outside of the feelings and emotions those events elicited.
Excerpts from “The Making of Autobiographical Memory: Intersections of Culture, Narratives, and Identity”
By R. Fivush, T. Habermas, T. E. A. Waters, and W. Zaman
Types of Autobiographical Memories
Autobiographical memory is a uniquely human form of memory that goes beyond recalling the who, what, where, and when of an event, to include memory of how this event occurred as it did, what it means, and why it is important (Bruner, 1990; Fivush & Haden, 1997; Fivush, 2010; Labov & Waletzky, 1967; Ricoeur, 1991). More than simple episodic recall (event recollection), autobiographical memory is rich with thoughts, emotions, and evaluations about what happened and provides explanatory frameworks replete with human intentions and motivations. Autobiographical memories comprise the story of our lives, rich in interactions and relationships, and in a very deep sense, provide a sense of self through a narrative identity (Habermas & Bluck, 2000; McAdams, 1992). From this perspective, autobiographical memory is socially and culturally mediated in at least two ways. First, autobiographical memory emerges within social interactions that focus on the telling and retelling of significant life events (Nelson & Fivush, 2004), and second, autobiographical memory is modulated by the sociocultural models available for organizing and understanding a human life, including narrative genres and life scripts (Berntsen & Rubin, 2004; Habermas, 2007; Thorne & McLean, 2003). [. . .]
The Sociocultural Model of Autobiographical Memory
All human action is situated within specific social and cultural frameworks that define the form and meaning of that action. More specifically, cultures define the skills and activities that are deemed important in order to become a competent member of that culture. Cultures promote mediated interactions in which children are drawn into participation in these activities in order to learn these critical skills (Rogoff, 1990; Vygotsky, 1978a). For example, in modern industrialized cultures, literacy is a critical skill. Beginning at birth, infants in these cultures are exposed to the signs and symbols of literacy; homes are strewn with magnetic letters and numbers, alphabet picture books, and letters and numbers printed on everything from building blocks to clothing. Well before infants are capable of understanding the significance of these symbols, they are already participating in social interactions that highlight their importance.
Autobiographical memory is also a socioculturally mediated skill (see Nelson & Fivush, 2004, for a full explication of this theory). Again, in modern industrialized societies, the ability to have and tell a story about one’s life is critical. As argued by Nelson (2001, 2003) and McAdams (1992), this skill may have become increasingly important as humans moved from traditional cultures, where individuals are defined in terms of their social relationships (e.g., parents, spouse, children) and societal and vocational role (e.g., blacksmith, shoemaker), to more industrialized cultures, where individuals moved in and out of multiple geographical locations, social relationships, and vocational roles across their lifetime. Whereas in traditional cultures, individual lives gain coherence and consistency through stability of place, roles, and relationships, in modern industrialized cultures, individual lives gain coherence and consistency through an individual narrative that weaves these disparate parts together. Thus in modern cultures, autobiographical narratives serve to create a sense of individual consistency and coherence across time (Conway, Singer, & Tagini, 2004).
An elderly man and his daughter looking at an old photo album together.
Autobiographical memory is important in the different contexts of traditional and modern industrialized societies. Traditional societies use the telling of life stories to solidify roles and relationships, whereas modern industrialized communities use these narratives to gain coherence and consistency in an individualistic society.
From the moment the individual is born, modern cultures reinforce the importance of having and telling one’s story. From birth, parents are already communicating the importance of this skill by telling their infants stories about the parents and grandparents, integrating the infant into this ongoing family narrative (Fiese, Hooker, Kotary, Schwagler, & Rimmer, 1995). As early as 16 months of age, well before infants can fully participate in these conversations, parents are already beginning to scaffold their child’s ability to narrate their past by asking and elaborating on questions about what happened (Reese, 2002). For example, the mother will ask, “Did we have fun at the park today? What did we do? Did we go on the swings?” and wait for some confirmation by the child before continuing, “Yes, and didn’t we swing high? Wasn’t that fun?” In these early, barely coconstructed narratives of the personal past, parents are already highlighting for children that telling and sharing the past is an important social activity. They also convey that there are certain ways to tell these kinds of stories, focusing not just on what happened but why it was interesting, important, and emotional. Even in the preschool years, children are called on to share their experiences with others, to tell Daddy what one had for lunch, or Grandmother what one did at the zoo. They are already expected to engage in showing and sharing, telling stories about objects brought to share, or telling stories of what one did over the weekend. Everyday conversation, even with preschoolers, is studded with references to the past; the personal past is a topic of spontaneous everyday conversation as frequently as a dozen times an hour (Bohanek et al., 2009; Miller, 1994). It is clear that personal narratives are frequent and valued parts of everyday conversation beginning very early in development.
As is apparent from this brief overview, language and narrative are critical in the development of autobiographical memory. From very early in development, children are being drawn into conversations about the past and are invited to participate in coconstructing narratives of daily events. Narratives provide a canonical cultural form for constructing coherent accounts of what occurred (Bruner, 1990; Fivush, 2007, 2010; Ricoeur, 1991). More specifically, narratives provide a chronological sequence of events that allow the teller and listener to place events on a timeline, both internal to the event (the sequence of specific actions) and placing this event in a larger temporal framework (when this event happened relative to other events, and how this event fits into a larger narrative of life events). Narratives also move beyond reporting sequences of what happened to include information about how and why. Narratives are infused with what individuals were thinking, what they were feeling, why this unfolded the way it did, and what it ultimately means. Personal narratives serve a function. Some narratives may simply be entertaining stories, but many narratives serve the function of defining self, defining relationships with others, and regulating emotional experiences through drawing moral and life lessons (Bluck & Alea, 2002; Habermas & Bluck, 2000; Pillemer, 1998). Narratives provide the framework for understanding and evaluating human experience. Thus, narratives bring a sense of personal meaning to experienced events. [. . .]
A mature autobiography normatively requires more than an assembly of unrelated memories. When reading autobiographies or listening to life narratives, we expect a more or less coherent account of how individuals understand their own development and of how they have tried to lead a meaningful life. Thus ultimately autobiographical memory is about weaving together multiple specific episodes into an overarching life narrative that explains an individual life course. [. . .]
Lastly, autobiographical narratives are critical for identity. Who we are is very much defined by the way in which we remember and reconstruct our past experiences; creating narratives of our past simultaneously creates a narrative of our self (Habermas & Bluck, 2000; McAdams, 2001; McLean, Pasupathi, & Pals, 2007). [. . .]
Source: Fivush, R., Habermas, T., Waters, T. E. A., & Zaman, W. (2011). The making of autobiographical memory: Intersections of culture, narratives and identity. International Journal of Psychology, 46(5), 321–345. Published by John Wiley & Sons. © 2011 International Union of Psychological Science.
Autobiographical memories are an important part of developing who we are and what we believe. (Learn more about some individuals who have highly developed autobiographical memories in Applying Skeptical Inquiry: Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory.) A person’s opinion about self and the events he or she has experienced have profound consequences for how learning is approached. As you will further explore (in Chapter 6), these memories can even affect our motivation and knowledge acquisition. But importantly, this is not the only memory that affects our learning: False memories, as discussed in the following section, also affect how we organize and recall memories and, thus, the things we believe to be true.
Applying Skeptical Inquiry: Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM)
In 2006, Parker, Cahill, and McGaugh reported the first known case of highly superior autobiographical memory (HSAM), the capacity to remember one’s past experiences in extreme detail. Some believe it is a genetic ability. Others have suggested development causes. Watch the following 60 Minutes news report about HSAM, hosted by CBS News’s Lesley Stahl. The report features people who have HSAM and establishes that there are significant physiological differences in abilities from person to person. Although only a small number of people have HSAM, the idea that every detail of every minute of every day can be stored within the brain is a fascinating find by neuroscientists.