Autobiographical Memory

Autobiographical memories are recollections of personally meaningful events that are used to construct one’s life history. As such, the memories formed are a reflection of a person’s self-concept as well as their relationship with significant others.

Definition and Overview

Autobiographical memory refers to memories individuals hold about themselves and their relations with the world around them. Such memories which are recollections of experiences from one’s life, as well as self-facts, give the individual a sense of self.

Autobiographical memory is not really a distinct kind of memory system. Rather, these types of memories are stored in both episodic and semantic memory. This point is further buttressed by Baddeley.

Autobiographical memory relies on both the episodic and the semantic memory systems, where memories for specific past experiences are mediated by the episodic system, and the more abstract knowledge about the past or one’s self are mediated by a personal branch of the semantic system. Baddeley (2012)

Remembered experiences that include contextual details, such as when, where, and with whom the experience occurred, are stored in episodic memory Opens in new window, whereas autobiographical facts, such as a birth date, are retained in semantic memory Opens in new window.

Larson (1991) defined autobiographical memory as a memory of personal experiences embedded in the context of one’s life.

Within that broad category of memory, Brewer (1988) outlined four potential basic classes of autobiographical memory: personal memory, autobiographical facts, generic personal memory, and a self-schema.

  1. Personal memories describe unique single events, or experiences, in one’s life. They often prompt a feeling of relieving the experience during recollection, including strong visual and effective components.
  2. Autobiographical facts are declarative fragments typically reported without accompanying mental imagery (e.g., the date of your birth).
  3. Generic personal memories contain information from a repeated set of similar experiences (recurring events).
  4. Last of all, the self-schema contains a large body of generic autobiographical information, and provides an integrated set of beliefs about one’s self (e.g., “I enjoy going to the movies with friends”).

Autobiographical memories can be forgotten just like other kinds of declarative memories. When they are forgotten, specific experiences stored episodically tend to be lost before autobiographical facts stored semantically.

  1. Autobiographical memory and the self in time: Brain lesion effects, functional neuroanatomy, and lifespan development. Brain and Cognition, 55, 54-68.
  2. McAdams, D. P. (2001). The psychology of life stories. Review of General Psychology, 5, 100-122.
  3. Piolino, P., Desgranges, B., Clarys, D., Guillery-Girard, B., Taconnat, L., Isingrini, M., & Eustache, F. (2006). Autobiographical memory, autonoetic consciousness, and self-perspective in aging. Psychology and aging, 21(3), 510.