Autobiographical Memory (Definition + Examples)

Looking for the definition and some examples of Autobiographical memory? No worries, here you will find all the information psychologists have found so far. 

If you ever want to fall in love with someone, just check out The 36 Questions That Lead to Love. These questions dive deep into each partner’s values, accomplishments, and shortcomings. And I mean deep. 

Question #11 of The 36 Questions That Lead to Love isn’t exactly a question. It states: “Take four minutes and tell your partner your life story in as much detail as possible.”

It’s common to need a minute or two to prepare this story. Very few people are asked to tell their life story. Where do you begin? What is most important to include? 

To tell the story of your life, you’ll need to pull from a specific collection of memories: autobiographical memories. This video explains what autobiographical memories are, what they consist of, and the different levels of autobiographical memory. These memories can have a big impact on the decisions you make and how you view yourself, so it’s important to check in with them here and there. 

What Are Autobiographical Memories? 

Autobiographical memories are a form of memory that we store in first-person because they happened to us. We are much more likely to remember autobiographical memories and can recall them in much more detail.

Characteristics:

  • Unique to each person
  • Repeatedly and extensively recalled
  • Easy to recall
  • Are up to personal interpretation

This last characteristic is very important, but I’ll dive into why later. 

What Type of Memories Make Up Autobiographical Memories?

If you’ve been watching my videos on memory, you know that memories are either in one of two types: declarative or procedural memories. Declarative memories, or explicit memories, are those that contain facts and events. These are the type of memories that you can declare. 

(The other type of memory is implicit, or procedural, memories. These are memories of how to do things like ride a bike or pick up a spoon.) 

Declarative memories can be further categorized into one of two types: episodic or semantic memories. Episodic memories play out like an episode of TV. They are the types of memories that happen from your perspective: the moment that you walked into a surprise party, the moment you heard your name called at graduation, the first time you saw your baby sister, etc. 

The other type of declarative memories are semantic memories. These memories provide context - it’s all of the information you know about what a surprise party is, what “graduation” means, or who your baby sister is. 

What type of memory is autobiographical memory? It’s both. 

In order to tell the story of your life, you will need both a collection of episodic memories and the context to put them all together. Remember, these memories are up to personal interpretation. You cannot place meaning or significance on your graduation until you know how much of a struggle it is to graduate and how many kids don’t get there. 

So it’s a blend of episodic and semantic memories that help you build the story of your life. But you can break down these memories even further into multiple categories.

Three Levels of Autobiographical Memory 

Your autobiographical memories sit on one of three levels:

  • Lifetime periods
  • General events
  • Event-specific knowledge 

Lifetime periods” is the broadest level of autobiographical memories. You may remember that there was a period of your life when you were in middle school. Or a period of your life when you lived in Oklahoma. Or a period of your life when you were dating your high school sweetheart. These periods may overlap, but they help to build a structure from which you can pull autobiographical memories. 

Within these periods are more general events. These events may be big accomplishments, turning points, or failures. Your graduation, a car crash, or starting a relationship may all fall under the “general events” category. Less significant events may also fall under this category if they provide context or help to move your story along. 

And then there is the knowledge about the event. This is where context and your interpretations really come into play. These are the details that support why an event is significant or how it contributes to the overall story of your life. Let’s say you remember that your parents weren’t at graduation. Or that when you graduated, you were first in your class. This event-specific knowledge tells more about the event and more about yourself. 

You Control the Story of Your Life

Let’s talk about that graduation example further. We have at least two pieces of event-specific knowledge to play with: your parents weren’t present, and you graduated first in your class. Which one is more significant? Which one would you tell first or place more emphasis on? These answers shape how you view yourself and colors the rest of your autobiographical memories.

Let’s say you tend to focus on your absent parents, disregarding your accomplishments. Repeating that disappointment over and over again doesn’t exactly make you feel good. Downplaying the work that you did throughout high school downplays your ability to work hard, your intelligence, or your determination. 

What would happen if you started to emphasize your accomplishments and not one disappointing fact?

I said that our autobiographical memories are up to interpretation. I also said that they are unique to every person who has experienced them. No one else has been in your shoes during the most significant moments of your life. No one can tell you how to see those events or how to place them in the overall story of your life. 

Change the Story Of Your Life To Influence More Positive Behaviors 

Psychologists studying autobiographical memory at KU Leuven in Belgium make a very important point about autobiographical memories: “memories about past personal experiences guide our current and future behavior.” 

If your autobiographical memories paint the picture of a failure, you will act and feel like a failure. If you change your interpretation of failure and paint the picture of someone who is determined to succeed, you will act and feel like someone who can pick themselves back up after a failure.

It’s certainly worth answering the question that I mentioned at the beginning of this video. It’s also worth analyzing the story that you tell yourself and others. How is the story of your life dictating your attitude toward yourself and your current behavior? How can you interpret significant events differently to create a more positive image and encourage more positive behavior?


How to reference this article:

Theodore. (2020, March). Autobiographical Memory (Definition + Examples). Retrieved from https://practicalpie.com/autobiographical-memory-definition-examples/.

About the author 

Theodore

Theodore created PracticalPsychology while in college and has transformed the educational online space of psychology. His goal is to help people improve their lives by understanding how their brains work. 1,700,000 Youtube subscribers and a growing team of psychologists, the dream continues strong!

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