Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

The Role of Visual Imagery in Autobiographical Memory

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

The Role of Visual Imagery in Autobiographical Memory

Article excerpt

Published online: 20 February 2014

# Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2014

Abstract Visual imagery plays a fundamental role in autobiographical memory, but several aspects of this role remain unclear. We conducted three experiments to explore this relationship. In the first experiment, we examined the relation between the phenomenological properties of autobiographical memory and several measures of visual-imagery ability. We found no significant positive relation between imagery ability and autobiographical memory, except on a measure of cognitive style. In a second experiment, we examined the autobiographical memories of people with different cognitive styles-namely, visualizers and verbalizers. We found that, for both kinds of participant, visual imagery was correlated with the feeling that they were reliving their memories, but auditory imagery played a greater role in verbalizers. In a third experiment, we examined the memories of individuals who had a congenital absence of visual imagery. We found that they had a deficit of auditory imagery, as well; moreover, they were much less likely than controls to feel as though they were reliving their memories. The results support the idea that visual imagery plays a vital and irreplaceable role in autobiographical recall.

Keywords Autobiographical memory . Imagery

Autobiographical memories are memories for the events of everyday life. For most people, these memories tend to come with a sense of reliving-a feeling that one is reexperiencing the original event. William James argued that this feeling is a vital component of memory:

Memory requires more than mere dating of a fact in the past. It must be dated in my past . . . I must think that I directly experienced its occurrence. It must have that "warmth and intimacy" . . . [that] characteriz[es] all experiences "appropriated" by the thinker as his own. (James, 1890/1950, p. 650)

Modern authors have made a similar distinction. Tulving, for instance, suggested that episodic memory (of which we consider autobiographical memory a part) involves autonoetic consciousness, or consciousness of a previous conscious experience (e.g., Tulving, 1985). For these reasons, other work (Baddeley, 1992; Brewer, 1996), including our own (Greenberg & Rubin, 2003; Rubin, Schrauf, & Greenberg, 2003), has held that this sense of reliving is a defining feature of autobiographical memory-that it distinguishes autobiographical memory from other forms of memory, such as semantic or implicit retrieval. This notion is no mere philosophical contrivance: People with retrograde autobiographical amnesia can learn aboutwhat happened during the amnesic period, but they may nevertheless maintain that they do not really remember it. The relearned experience feels as though it could very well have happened to someone else, precisely because it lacks the "warmth and intimacy" that marks it as their own.

Similarly, when we retrieve an autobiographical memory, we tend to believe that the original event actually happened more or less as we remember it. As the vast literature on false memory has shown, this belief may or may not be accurate. Moreover, recollection and belief are not identical, nor even strongly correlated (Mazzoni & Kirsch, 2002; Rubin et al., 2003; Scoboria, Mazzoni, Kirsch, & Relyea, 2004). We can relive a memory without fully believing in its accuracy (as when we "could have sworn" that an event happened in one way, only to find out that it did not). In fact, research on "nonbelieved memories" has shown that experimental procedures can lead people to have memories that they vividly relive yet know to be false (Otgaar, Scoboria, & Smeets, 2013). Conversely, we can believe in a memory that does not come with much in the way of reliving (as in a dimly remembered but well-documented event from early childhood).

Reliving and belief are two of the most fundamental metacognitive components of autobiographical memory, but they are not the only components involved. …

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