Autobiographical memory, sometimes termed personal memory, is a combination of episodes recollected from an individual's life. When considered collectively, autobiographical memories serve as the basis for a person's life story. These memories help form a person's sense of identity and self-image. Autobiographical memory is quite distinct from the memorizing of words, pictures and lists that have traditionally been studied in laboratory settings.
Episodic memory has been designated as a memory of an event that occurred at a specific time and place. Some researchers contend that autobiographical memories consist of an inventory of episodic memories. However, differentiation can be made between a generic episodic memory and a personal episodic memory that will be retained in a person's autobiographical memory. For instance, a routine car ride is a generic episodic memory that will most probably not be remembered in the long term by a person. However, a car ride in which the person meets his long-lost cousin will be stored in his autobiographical memory.
Autobiographical memory has an interactive relationship with a person's concept of self. A person's wishes, aspirations and intents control the interpretation of autobiographical information, and may designate which memories are subconsciously allowed to be retrieved by that person. On the flipside, a person's concept of self is built upon autobiographical memories. A person's evaluation of recollections of actions and reactions to specific situations will determine if the self-image is positive or negative. A person's self-concept is not static and so it follows that autobiographical memories are also dynamic, and subject to change based on new experiences, knowledge and mental reorganization of autobiographical memories.
The accuracy of autobiographical memories is often questioned, since memories are so often integrated with a subject's personal wishes, whims and fantasies. These memories are prone to error and often partially fabricated.
Interesting discussions revolve around early-childhood memories. Most people do not retain any autobiographical memories prior to the age of three. Some ascribe this phenomenon to the undeveloped verbal skills of children at this young age. Episodic memories enter into the autobiographical memory bank through the repeated narration of an event. A person who has experienced a particular event often repeats the incident to friends, family and acquaintances. This socially interactive model suggests that people retain their autobiographical memories in recoverable form by formulating narratives. The more often the narrative is repeated, the longer it will be remembered.
An effect of the social aspect of autobiographical memory is the role that society plays in the actual shaping of these recollections. As a person shares memories, the experience is defined and reconstructed. Some experiences are not socially acceptable. Many scholars believe that autobiographical memories are significantly deficient, since they omit memories that were deemed socially unacceptable. Only memories that are voiced are included in the autobiographical memory, and silenced memories are repressed.
Sigmund Freud and later proponents of psychoanalysis believe that human behavior is determined by subconscious irrational drives. Many of these drives develop as a result of early childhood events. These autobiographical memories are generally repressed by the person, bringing rise to mental disturbances such as neurotic traits, anxiety and depression. Through skilled psychoanalysis, these memories are brought from the subconscious to the conscious, ridding the person of such mental disturbances.
Autobiographical memories are either reproductions, retrieved from the memory, or are reconstructions, in which the memory is substantially rebuilt from sources of information outside of the original memory. The memory of an event is easy to produce right after its occurrence, but with the passage of time the memory requires a higher degree of reconstruction. The gradation in time between reproduction and reconstruction aligns with the decline of the rate of recall of memory that accompanies longer retention intervals. The decline in memory retention over the course of time usually refers to the memory details and not to the main gist of the event.
Events that a subject has experienced personally are generally remembered longer and more clearly than an event encountered through a second-hand source. Events that stimulate a high level of mental involvement are better remembered than events that do not require this mental effort. Atypical events are recalled better than typical, routine events. Events that generate a strong emotional response are remembered much longer and with more acuity than events that do not generate such a degree of emotional response.