Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

The Frequency of Voluntary and Involuntary Autobiographical Memories across the Life Span

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

The Frequency of Voluntary and Involuntary Autobiographical Memories across the Life Span

Article excerpt

In the present study, ratings of the memory of an important event from the previous week on the frequency of voluntary and involuntary retrieval, belief in its accuracy, visual imagery, auditory imagery, setting, emotional intensity, valence, narrative coherence, and centrality to the life story were obtained from 988 adults whose ages ranged from 15 to over 90. Another 992 adults provided the same ratings for a memory from their confirmation day, when they were at about age 14. The frequencies of involuntary and voluntary retrieval were similar. Both frequencies were predicted by emotional intensity and centrality to the life story. The results from the present study-which is the first to measure the frequency of voluntary and involuntary retrieval for the same events-are counter to both cognitive and clinical theories, which consistently claim that involuntary memories are infrequent as compared with voluntary memories. Age and gender differences are noted.

Involuntary autobiographical memories are explicit memories of personal events that come to mind with no preceding attempt at retrieval (Berntsen, 1996, 2009). Their counterpart is voluntary autobiographical memories-that is, personal memories that follow a controlled, strategic retrieval process. Memory studies have concentrated on the latter. Only recently have involuntary memories been a focus of systematic research (see, e.g., Ball & Little, 2006; Berntsen, 1996, 2009; Berntsen & Hall, 2004; Berntsen & Rubin, 2002, 2008; Kvavilashvili & Mandler, 2004; Mace, 2007; Rubin, Boals, & Berntsen, 2008; Schlagman, Kvavilashvili, & Schulz, 2007). In the present study, we examine a number of unresolved issues related to involuntary autobiographical memories.

Cognitive theorists have considered involuntary autobiographical memories as rare. For example, a scientist wanting to study them "can only sit and wait, hoping for the improbable" (Miller, 1962, p. 161). Tulving (1983) argued that successful recall from the episodic memory system was contingent on being in a retrieval mode. Only rarely would stimuli in the environment activate conscious episodic recollections through purely associative mechanisms outside retrieval mode. "Access to, or actualization of, information in the episodic system tends to be deliberate and usually requires conscious effort" (p. 46). "Few things that we perceive make us think of previous happenings in our own lives > . > many stimuli that could potentially serve as reminders or cues, even if prominently displayed to person, will have no such effect" (p. 169). Although Mandler (1985) acknowledged that "much of everyday memory experiences are in fact nondeliberate" (pp. 102-103), he also observed that autobiographical, episodic knowledge is generally "deliberate, and consciously accessed, context dependent and 'remembered,'" whereas semantic knowledge "is often automatically available, context free and 'known'" (p. 94).

Ebbinghaus (1885/1964, pp. 1-2) identified three basic kinds of memory in his book that launched the experimental study of human memory: voluntary conscious memory, involuntary conscious memory, and involuntary unconscious memory, which he studied using the method of savings. In contrast, most research on implicit memory has equated the distinction between conscious and unconscious memory with a distinction between intentional and unintentional retrieval (see, e.g., Schacter, Bowers, & Booker, 1989; but see Kinoshita, 2001; Schacter, 1987, for discussions). As a consequence, the category of involuntary-but nonetheless conscious-memories is overlooked (but see Richardson-Klavehn, Gardiner, & Java, 1994). In research on consciousness, spontaneous thought processes have been studied under a variety of labels, such as daydreaming (Singer, 1966), fantasy (Klinger, 1971), task-unrelated thought (Giambra, 1989), stimulus-independent mentation (Singer, 1970), mind wandering (Antrobus, Singer, Goldstein, & Fortgang, 1970; Smallwood & Schooler, 2006), and mind popping (Mandler, 1994). …

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