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What Is Autobiographical Memory?

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  • Written By: Marlene Garcia
  • Edited By: Daniel Lindley
  • Last Modified Date: 21 October 2018
  • Copyright Protected:
    2003-2018
    Conjecture Corporation
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Autobiographical memory defines information a person recalls over a lifetime and includes specific periods of time, certain events, and general occasions. The brain imprints important facts from these memories in a particular part of the mind and discards useless information. People use autobiographical memory to form their identities, for social bonding, and regulating future behavior from past experiences.

Life periods in autobiographical memory might include the time a person spent in school or working in a particular job. These recollections typically remain sharp at the beginning and end of the time periods, but might be unclear in the middle. Certain events occurring during these life periods might also be remembered with clarity, such as a milestone while living in a specific house.

Autobiographical memory includes general events that happened during a person’s life. Recalling one occasion might trigger a memory of a similar incident that stands out as a time when a person did exceptionally well or poorly. These memories create a sense of self and usually contain vivid details.

Event-specific knowledge typically involves total recall of major themes in a person’s life, such as the beginning of a life-changing experience. Times of significant change, or events that determine future behavior, become cataloged in the brain differently from general knowledge during each life period. These memories usually contain accurate facts that do not change over time.

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Psychologists define autobiographical memory differently from other forms of recall, such as semantic memory and episodic memory, but some overlap might exist. Semantic memory represents abstract information learned or memorized over a lifetime, such as where a person was born or where a particular building is located. The brain encodes semantic memory differently from autobiographical memory, which denotes passive recall that does not require memorization.

Episodic memory activates a portion of the right side of the brain not active with autobiographical memory. This type of recall allows a person to remember specific people, time periods, or locations. The memories might be sparked by a scent or what someone wore in the past, and the event is essentially relived via memory.

Research shows autobiographical memory and episodic memory overlap during flashbulb recall. This occurs when an incident is so important it shocks the brain, such as a terrorist attack or the assassination of a president. These memories remain preserved in detail as episodic memories and also in event-specific knowledge.

Memory involves alterations in recall as a person gains new experiences. It might change with hindsight and a different point of view, called reconstruction memory. Field memory occurs when a person retains the original conception of what happened, often in precise detail.

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