Autobiographical Memory

02 September, 2020
Can you imagine not being able to remember your first love or childhood experiences? Today, we're going to talk about autobiographical memory and its function in your everyday life.

Remembering your very first childhood friend, recalling favorite smells, what you were like when you were younger, and the different ways you’ve enjoyed your life are inherent to autobiographical memory. So can you imagine forgetting the people who are closest to you? What your first kiss was like? What your favorite places were? These are all examples of moments stored in your autobiographical memory.

Today, we’re going to talk about this kind of memory. Firstly, we’ll talk about what it is and how it relates to your consciousness. Then, we’ll take a look at some promising research about a potential treatment (or cure) for Alzheimer’s disease.

“The perfume of the soul is remembrance.”

-George Sand-

What’s autobiographical memory?

Autobiographical memory is related to personal experiences. It’s made up of the memories that tell the story of your lifeConsequently, it’s the foundation of your biography because it acts as the organizer of your experiences.

This memory system is the result of the interaction you have with the outside world and what you do defines autobiographical memory. According to Jose Maria Ruiz-Vargas, professor and researcher at the Autonomous University of Madrid, autobiographical memories are characterized by:

  • The relationship with the self. These memories contain information that helps shape and define who you are.
  • Narrative structure. When you recall personal experiences, you do it by telling a story. Thus, the experience becomes a narrative during the recollection process (Ruiz-Vargas, 2004, p. 10).
  • Mental images. Autobiographical memories include visual images. They also include other sensorial modalities including hearing and smell.
  • The emotional component. Emotions often make memories stronger and more intense.

Autobiographical memory is also related to temporal distribution. The availability of the personal past doesn’t happen in a uniform way. It varies from memory to memory, and it also depends on the stage of life you’re in.

The divisions of autobiographical memory

There are two main elements of autobiographical memory:

  • Episodic. This is related to memories of your own past. In other words, memories associated with personal experiences that occur at a particular time and place.
  • Semantic. These are memories associated with events that happen repetitively and past experiences that span long periods of time.

Here are some examples of episodic autobiographical memories. “I remember that day that I went snorkeling and I saw a tortoise for the first time”, or “I remember when they admitted me to the hospital for depression”. Semantic memories, on the other hand, would be something like, “When I was a child, I used to visit my grandma every Saturday”.

If you analyze both types of memory, you can see that episodic autobiographical memory is related to subjective time. It allows you to relive prior experiences through an autonoetic awareness. In other words, it allows you to feel as if you’re living your experiences again, a sort of mental trip through time. Semantic autobiographical memory, on the other hand, is more limited to a sense of familiarity.

Autobiographical memory research

These days, researchers are very interested in autobiographical memory. Especially as it’s related to neurodegenerative diseases and post-traumatic stress.

In terms of Alzheimer’s disease specifically, autobiographical memory suffers a decline. Through a series of studies, scientists have been able to see that the degenerative process is different depending on what type it is. They’ve also discovered that it happens in normal and pathological aging.

Thus, when you remember your past, you have a thought associated with episodic memory. The production of these memories is low when you compare them to the production of semantic memories. Most importantly, people with Alzheimer’s disease have a poor ability to recover episodic autobiographical moments. 

To study autobiographical memory in people with Alzheimer’s, researchers conduct experiments using the process of reminiscence. In other words, they prompt people to recall events and memories.

Memory triggers

El Haj, Fasotti, and Allain (2012) published the results of their study in the journal Consciousness and Cognition. They looked at the involuntary nature of autobiographical memories triggered by music. Similarly, other authors emphasize the process of memories triggered by images, videos, and even smells.

In conclusion, autobiographical memory is intimately related to who you are because it’s related to your experiences, both in a general and detailed way. The way that different things trigger autobiographical memories changes depending on whether the aging process is normal or pathological.

People with Alzheimer’s disease also show a progressive loss of episodic autobiographical memory. Several studies that are in progress are continuing to explore this type of memory. We hope that the results of these studies help illuminate the path to finding a cure for neurodegenerative diseases.

El Haj, M., Antonie, P., Nandrino, J.L., & Kapogiannis, D. (2017). Discrepancy berween subjective autobiographical reliving and objective recall: The past as seen by Alzhimer’s disease patients. Consciousness and cognition, 49, 111-116.

El Haj, M., Antonie, P., Nandrino,J. L., & Kapogiannis, D. (2015). Autobiographical memory decline in Alzheimer’s disease, a theoretical and clinical overview. Ageing research reviews, 23, 183-192.

El Haj, M., Fasotti, L., & Allain, P. (2012). The involuntary nature of music-evoked autobiographical memories in Alzheimer’s disease. Consciouness and cognition, 21 (1), 238-246.

Ruiz-Vargas, J.M. (2004)- Clavers de la memoria autobiográfica. En Autobiografía en España: un balance: acta del congreso internacional celebrado en la Facultad de Filosofía y Letras de Córdoba.