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Autobiographical memory is a form of long-term memory that consists of remembering episodes of our lives. These memories are based upon elements of personal experiences of specific places and times (known as episodic memory) and also more general knowledge about the world (known as semantic memory).
Researchers explain that autobiographical memories are created within a memory system called the self-memory system (SMS). The self-memory system is a conceptual model in our minds composed of two components – an autobiographical knowledge base and the working self.
The autobiographical knowledge base contains the knowledge of the self, so who you are and information about your own persona. It is used to provide information on what the self is, what the self was, and what the self can be, and this helps us to understand where our own personal experiences fit in. By understanding how your past experiences relate to your current experience, behaviour can be shaped. Included in this knowledge base are ‘Lifetime periods’ which are details about events such as school years, so those key milestones in someone’s life. ‘General events’ are also included in the autobiographical knowledge base and general events can include important events such as first-time achievements (such as first time of riding a bike).
The working self is an unconscious structure, and, in this structure, we have a set of active personal goals and images about ourselves. These personal goals and self-images can work together to modify cognition and thoughts, and the resulting behaviour, so that an individual can operate effectively in the world. So for example, if we have a working self that would set a goal of needing to be quiet in a lecture, but our behaviour is loud and disruptive, we would compare our behaviour to that of the expectations of the working self and in turn, our behaviour could be modified to be calmer.
There are many factors that can influence an individual’s autobiographical memory, and these can include a natural decline with age, brain and memory disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and also an individual’s mood and emotion.
I have recently read an interesting piece of work which looks at how our own emotive state can influence how we autobiographical memories. As autobiographical memories are often paired with heightened emotions (as in they are usually really happy experiences or really traumatic experiences), it won’t come as a surprise that when an individual is more focussed upon their own mood, then this can influence how autobiographical memories are recalled. If an autobiographical memory creates a happy mood (in terms of the original event being a happy one) then an individual will be able to more accurately recall their autobiographical memory if they are feeling similar to that of the happy real-life event. So for example, if a person was happy when receiving exam results, they will be able to recall the day of the exam results in more detail if they are feeling happy at the time of being asked to recall the information.
As well as looking at how emotions may influence autobiographical memory, we can also see how mental health may affect the memory of autobiographical events.
Often, we find that individuals who have been diagnosed with a mental health issue may also have memory issues and autobiographical memory can be heavily affected by mental health issues such as depression, or cases such as posttraumatic stress disorder. Key depression theories as discussed by Beck, tend to include elements of autobiographical memory as autobiographical memories can be key to the aetiology of depression.
Research has found that an individual who has been diagnosed with a mental health disorder may have a distorted perception of reality and what they feel is correct about their lives, may not be an accurate reflection of what is actually occurring. In turn, this could mean that an individual with a mental health disorder could have issues when being asked to recall autobiographical events and they may recall events in an unclear way.
Mindfulness-based cognitive therapies aim to support the individual when recalling information as this type of therapy can be very relaxing for an individual. If an individual is calm (and less emotive or stressed) when recalling an event, then the hope is that the memory is more accurate.
Laura Jenkins, PhD is a teaching associate in the School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences at Loughborough University.