Remembering the Personal Past: Descriptions of Autobiographical Memory

Remembering the Personal Past: Descriptions of Autobiographical Memory

Remembering the Personal Past: Descriptions of Autobiographical Memory

Remembering the Personal Past: Descriptions of Autobiographical Memory


The impetus for this book is the belief that a comprehensive description of autobiographical memory in both form and function must be an eclectic, interdisciplinary endeavour. Unlike cognitive and experimental psychologists, who have conducted most of their work in laboratories and have been concerned with rote memory tasks, Ross looks at motivation and emotion as components of human memory and assembles a diverse body of sources that have heretofore been ignored by psychologists in their study of memory. He organizes his discussions along three lines of inquiry: (1) the subjective or experimental dimension of autobiographical memory, (2) the early development and later recall of childhood memories, and (3) social, historical, and folkloric perspectives on autobiographical retention. Rich and original scope, this work calls on the names of James, Titchener, Freud, Piaget, Baldwin, Janet, Proust, Sartre, Bergson, Russell, Strauss, and Merleau-Ponty, among others, to broaden our current understanding of the experience of autobiographical memory.


Rumor has it that the unexamined life is not worth living. But what from one's past can reasonably be known and subjected to examination? And there is a further troubling complication: what psychical baggage is retained from one's past with all identification lost? Every person possesses not only a waiting room of memories where old favorites are recalled but also a Lost and Found where recollections from the past appear without being recognized. Other less accessible memories are hidden in mental suitcases to which we have misplaced the keys; elsewhere suitcases are discovered empty that we thought were full. Piled in with the rest are convenient imitation packages of memories constructed out of dreams and fantasies that were never paid for with experience. Every baggage room of memories is open day and night, for no living traveler rides free of the burden of old luggage.

The major impetus for this book is the belief that a comprehensive description of the field of autobiographical memory, in both its form and its function, must be an eclectic, interdisciplinary endeavor. This attempt at providing a panoramic view goes directly against the spirit of the current age, which favors rigorously minimalist and reductive descriptions. But however one may wish it otherwise, an adequately fleshed-out description of human memory must consider such factors as motivations and emotions, whether one treats them as potentially retainable memory components or as part of an enabling ambience for recollection. Here theoretical opinions vary widely. Nonetheless, a purely cognitive memory must belong either to a robot or to an inert database.

Chapter organization, in the main, proceeds from consideration of memory attributes of the individual in relative isolation to retention in social groups and institutions; likewise, temporal durations extend from the fairly immediate to the very long term. The description of sensations and images found in laboratory-based retention studies is followed by ideas about memory recall in the dyadic relation of traditional psychotherapy, while later chapters deal with memory in social groups and across historical time spans. Multiple memory frameworks are required to represent the possibilities of autobiographical memory, since, as in love and war, every stratagem is permissible, with potential memory disclosures ranging from unconscious actions to public communications. The present work includes several instances in which, in spite of widely differing content, there has been considerable unacknowledged agreement across disparate disciplines.

At odds with much contemporary thinking about autobiographical retention is my emphasis on the old-fashioned problem of memory accuracy. Even when evaluation must be extremely problematic, accuracy would seem to be a determination that cannot altogether be ignored. Nevertheless many psycho-

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