We store and recall vast information pertaining to the self. These memories are referred to in psychology as autobiographical memories. This streaming autobiographical script is a constructive and reconstructive long-term memory that is unique to the individual. Our autobiographical memories are central to drawing pertinent information from new experiences.
We experience the world filtered through an autobiographical story where we are the main character in our experience. We don’t just experience life but experience life as seen by us, and these experiences repeatedly redefine us.
”Autobiographical memories are personally important memory representations. These memories are the content of the self and define who we are, who we have been, and, importantly, who we can yet become. They enable us to have a past, present, and future in which we exist as individuals. They are, therefore, one of our most important bodies of knowledge and because of that would have been, it might be thought, the focus of memory research for many decades” (Conway & Williams, 2008).
We define who we are from the material of the past. However, we can subjectively interpret that material. We should create meaning from the facts that motivates, encourages, and heals. Occasionally, as life moves forward, we must revisit those interpretations, making adjustments, and rewriting narratives.
Autobiographical Memories and Episodic Memories
An episodic memory is information stored on particular events. Many autobiographical memories are episodic. We remember a personal experience. For example, I remember am episode from fifth grade of discovering my report card missing from my binder. I went back to look for it and found several boys from the neighboring class reading my poor marks and laughing.
Remembering the grades I received would be a semantic memory (also autobiographical). Remembering the event of boys laughing at my grades is episodic. The shame of the episodic memory stung, burning the incident into memory, and forming early conceptions about myself—I’m stupid.
Autobiographical memory emerges from episodic memory:
- Autobiographical memory relies on autobiographical consciousness—a sense of self as a separate distinct individual. We develop this sense early in life, typically before five years of age.
- Autobiographical memories form largely from social interactions. Our place in society and family units heavily influences the coherent stories constructed to organize experience. A theme to our narrative identity emerges during adolescence.
- Autobiographical memories serve sociocultural functions of defining self and regulating emotion.
Emotions and Autobiographical Memories
Research suggests that emotions play a primary role in storage of autobiographical memories. Episodes involving heightened emotions are tagged as important. These emotionally heightened episodes are vividly captured and retained with the richness of the accompanying emotions.
Some research has suggested that negative events are more perceptually vivid than neutral or positive events. Other research has found that both positive and negative episodes are equally stored in memory as significant without regard to the valence of the emotion (Wardell et al. 2021). We adapt to new learning by constantly changing and updating memories. Our autobiographical narrative changes to absorb new information. With the passage of time, many vivid memories dim or are modified, and some even forgotten as new scripts become more salient.
Memories are not like data stored in video format, exactly the same each time recalled. Each time we recall an episode from the past, we infuse or corrupt the file with knowledge and emotions in the present. The new compromised file then is tucked back into long term memory, replacing the old copy previously stored.
Recreating Autobiographical Memories in Therapy
Therapists often treat patients by pulling up old memories entangled with negative emotional states (depression, anxiety) and help clients reformat these memories. Perhaps, in many ways, infusing old destructive autobiographical conclusions with new interpretations. Jeffrey M. Schwartz, MD, an internationally-recognized authority on Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, explains that there is a “strong, physical connection between unhappy thoughts and the memories, associations, and modes of thought that inflate sadness into depression.” He continues, “the therapist needs to help patients encode in memory alternative thought patterns that can be activated by the very same cues that otherwise tap into the despairing ones” (2003, page 248).
Changing autobiographical narratives is a healthy practice. The changing memories is a part of maturing, integrating new experiences, and eliminating childish interpretations. Autobiographical memories are adaptive and dynamic. When these memories get stuck in traumatic pasts they ignite unhealthy stress and sorrow.
Autobiographical Memories Are a Complex Blend
Autobiographical memories are a complex blend of memories of single, recurring, and extended events that we have integrated into a coherent story by drawing subjective meaning from the blending of episodes across time. Martin A. Conway and Christopher W. Pleydell-Pearce suggest that autobiographical memories emerge from a knowledge base built from three broad domains: lifetime periods, general events, and event-specific knowledge.
This knowledge is organized into what Conway and Pleydell-Pearce refer to as a self-memory system (SMS). We draw from this self-memory system to provide information on what the self is, what the self was, and what the self can be (Conway & Pleydell-Pearce, 2000).
Lifetime periods are general knowledge about distinguishable time periods in our lives. We build specific themes around time periods. We then use those themes to interpret memories from that time. For example, we may have certain themes associated with college years, employment at a specific business, or the years following a divorce.
Our knowledge of the time period molds any memories we pull from that specific era and we interpret the memory from the themed knowledge, utilizing the accompanying emotions associated with the time period recalled.
General events are more specific than lifetime periods, organized by theme rather than time period. Researchers often refer to this as “group clusters.” When I experience shame, and draw the conclusion that I am inferior to others, I begin to dredge up memories clustered around this theme. Memories may span across many life periods. In the case of a sense of inferiority, I may remember rejections, failures, and subpar performances.
We unconsciously customize our autobiographical memories to fit predetermined conclusions. Through selective attention, we only focus awareness on ideas and facts that reenforce our narrative, limiting our need to significantly adjust prevailing narratives. When depressed, we pull from a wealth of experienced events to support the darkness of depression.
Event specific knowledge is the vivid detailed information of visual images and sensory-perceptual experience. For neutral events that don’t evoke strong emotions, these memories quickly fade. We may remember a specific incident but reconstruct the emotions and images; they are not accurate representations of the event. We infuse these non-distinct memories with knowledge pulled from autobiographical themes (I’m inferior) and time period themes (I was depressed just after my divorce).
However, if the event was accompanied by strong emotions, we’re more likely to capture the specific incident with the colorful array and richness of associated emotions and images.
Influencing Autobiographical Memories
Martha Beck wrote “we choose elements of what William James called, ‘the blooming, buzzing confusion’ around us, and build our stories from a very limited selection of facts. The information we choose to include of exclude determines whether we see our lives as comedy, tragedy, romance, or action-adventure (2002, page 96).
The work of rewriting our autobiography begins by rewiring the unifying themes. Perhaps, seeing a theme during a particular time period as more psychologically supportive than self-destructive. For example, instead of seeing myself as a stupid child that received low marks in fifth grade, I can see a little boy that failed to prioritize homework. As our themes change, so does our memories, and along with the memories so does our perception of self. By and large, we can adapt our autobiographical memories in a way that doesn’t change the past but softens the impact. We have power.
Interestingly, when our perceptions of self change, we begin to create new groupings of themed memories that support these new self narratives. The process makes healthy subjective conclusions from “the blooming, buzzing confusion.”
Daniel Sigel explains in his book Mindsight that we can “become overwhelmed by fragmented autobiographical images, filled with bodily sensations, awash in emotions that overwhelm and confuse. He instructs that we can sooth these emotions “by using words to describe and label this internal world (2010).
Reminiscing about past events is a powerful tool for organizing, assigning meaning, and connecting multiple events to specific themes. Reminiscing can be healing or destructive, depending on how we organize, which meanings we assign, and the groupings we establish.
Healthy reminiscing moves us towards goals that improve our lives. Destructive reminiscing achieves the opposite, interfering with growth, justifying failure, and weighing us down with debilitating depression and anxiety.
Significantly, a growing body of evidence suggests that the way we frame past experience and draw meaning from events strongly influences psychological adjustment. Our patterns of autobiographical reminiscing can lead to self-compassion, healing and growth or self loathing, sorrow and stagnation (Booker, 2019).
Books on Autobiographical Narratives
A Few Words from Flourishing Life Society
Generally, our autobiographical memories and narratives are not purely fiction—real events happen. The purpose of rewriting narratives is to see the events in a kinder light, gaining a perspective to support growth, not to justify failure. However, narratives are not merely a choice. Genetics and environments strongly influence personal stories. Importantly, depression or other disorders are not figments of imagination, or the child of a mishandled perspective. Depression and other ravaging emotional disturbances have genetic foundations. The disturbing emotions then influence autobiographical memories, structure life themes, and assign meaning to the discomforting emotions.
However, rewriting life stories and discovering healthy new themes can mitigate nasty emotions. easing the pain, and provide a tool against there influence. We may not cure our biological inheritance but may find a narrative that makes them bearable, and, even in some cases, beneficial.
Beck, M. (2002). Finding Your Own North Star: Claiming the Life You Were Meant to Live. Harmony; Reprint edition
Booker, J. (2019). Patterns in autobiographical reminiscing among early adults: Implications for forgiveness and self‐compassion. Social Development, 28(4), 802-819.
Conway, M., & Pleydell-Pearce, C. (2000). The Construction of Autobiographical Memories in the Self-Memory System. Psychological Review, 107(2), 261-288.
Conway, M.A., Williams, H.L. (2008). Cognitive Psychology of Memory, in Learning and Memory: A Comprehensive Reference, John H. Byrne (editor).
Schwartz, Jeffrey M. (2003). The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force. Harper Perennial
Siegel, Daniel (2010). Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation. Bantam; Reprint edition
Wardell, V., Madan, C., Jameson, T., Cocquyt, C., Checknita, K., Liu, H., & Palombo, D. (2021). How emotion influences the details recalled in autobiographical memory. Applied Cognitive Psychology, EarlyView