Do you have strong memories of a particularly enjoyable vacation from childhood? Can you vividly recall the first time you went swimming? When you think back on these memories from your life, you are activating your autobiographical memory.
Below, we’re going to cover autobiographical memory, provide examples of its use, and discuss ways it can be both impaired and improved.
An Overview Of Autobiographical Memory
Autobiographical memory is an essential form of long-term memory that comprises the various episodes and experiences that make up a human life. Autobiographical memory is thought to utilize the two primary types of declarative memory: semantic memory, which is the storage and retrieval of facts and ideas, and episodic memory, which refers to the memory of events. The episodic component is considered particularly important, as it enables us to recall past occurrences we’ve experienced in detail.
The episodes we retain and recall through autobiographical memory shape the memories and information we gather about ourselves and others, and ultimately help us construct the narratives of our lives. In addition, autobiographical memory is important to our ability to sustain social bonds, recall useful coping mechanisms, and make decisions for the future.
Accuracy Of Autobiographical Memory
Autobiographical memory, like other forms of memory, is fallible. Research suggests that even in people with exceptional memory for past events, it is possible to form false memories and add new details to old recollections. While people often remember the basics of an event, they sometimes embellish the memory, attribute it to an incorrect source, or otherwise distort it.
Autobiographical memory can be thought of as a form of reconstruction, rather than a 100% accurate and detailed process of recollection. When we reflect on certain events from our lives, the exact details may change slightly over time even though their basic gist remains intact.
Autobiographical Memory Cues
When we engage our autobiographical memory, it’s often in response to a retrieval cue that prompts the brain to recall a certain event. The smell of funnel cakes, for example, may summon memories of a day spent at the fair with your family. Words, images, odors, and a variety of other cues can prompt the recollection of autobiographical memories.
Examples Of Autobiographical Memory
While we experience and remember our lives in diverse ways, certain events are typically more likely to become part of autobiographical memory. Through the following examples, we’re going to learn more about how autobiographical memory is stored, recalled, and utilized to help us create a sense of self. You may resonate with the following examples of autobiographical memory or have your own list of important recollections. As you reflect on these examples, consider how your own memories affect your understanding of yourself, other people, and the world around you.
Remembering your (or someone else’s) wedding is a good example of how autobiographical memories can involve recalling facts as well as settings, sensory experiences, and emotional states. You may remember the excitement and joy you felt on your wedding day. Additionally, you may be able to recall vividly how the cake tasted and the way the venue was decorated. The facts that you remember from that day—using semantic memory—can provide further context. For example, remembering the name of the officiant may help round out this particular autobiographical memory.
Many people have strong memories from grade school, high school, or college. This example helps us illustrate the importance of cues to autobiographical memory. Seeing classmates or teachers from your school days may prompt memories from those times. If you have children of your own, their educational experiences might transport you to your own classroom or schoolyard memories.
Here, we can also distinguish autobiographical memory from other forms. For example, do you remember all the state capitals from junior high geography? If you do, your ability to recall this information is not necessarily related to autobiographical memory. Recalling the specific song you were taught to learn the capitals, however, is an example of autobiographical memory at work.
This example helps us explore ways our autobiographical memories can be distorted. As you get older, your earliest autobiographical memories may begin to fade. This is a normal, common distortion known as transience. You may be able to still remember that something happened to you but find yourself unable to recall specific details; or you may experience an increasing number of gaps in your memory.
Like other forms of memory, early childhood memories should be considered with care. Research suggests that while we can retain some confidence in the “who”, “where”, and “what” of a childhood event, our brains may unconsciously fill in specific details that are not actually remembered.
The formation of childhood memories can also help explain how our autobiographical memory becomes crucial to our sense of self. Knowing how you grew into the person you are today can help you better understand your personality and why you behave certain ways. Research shows that when parents frequently reminisce about the past with their kids, those children tend to develop a better understanding of themselves.
Possible Causes Of Autobiographical Memory Loss
Given the importance of autobiographical memory, impairments can be concerning. Autobiographical memory loss is a prominent challenge in Alzheimer’s disease and similar neurodegenerative diseases. The impairment of autobiographical memory in Alzheimer’s is thought to be primarily related to a loss of episodic memory, though semantic memory is affected as well.
Autobiographical memory impairment can also occur in people who are otherwise healthy. A condition known as severely deficient autobiographical memory can significantly affect an individual’s ability to remember life experiences. People with this condition may have knowledge of facts but no ability to contextualize them. Certain mental health conditions, including PTSD and depression, have also been linked to autobiographical memory loss.
While some memory changes commonly occur with age, research suggests that some older adults actually report more detailed autobiographical memories. Research also suggests that older adults’ episodic autobiographical memories tend to be more positive.
Getting Help For Memory Concerns
Research suggests that, with the right approach, autobiographical memory can be improved. If you’ve noticed any significant memory changes in yourself or a loved one, consider consulting with a healthcare provider. Depending on your symptoms, they may administer memory tests to determine whether you meet the diagnostic criteria for a memory disorder or a related condition. They can then help you determine the best course of action for treating memory impairment.
Additionally, therapy can be a source of support and guidance when it comes to memory concerns. A licensed mental health professional can help you address the emotional challenges of autobiographical memory impairment, implement strategies for improving your cognitive functioning, and work through symptoms of comorbid conditions.
Online Therapy Can Support You
Studies show that online therapy is an effective form of treatment for cognitive challenges as well as mental health concerns. For example, in one study, researchers found that online therapy improved participants’ memory and reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression—and that these results were sustained for three months post-treatment. The study also notes the ease of use, availability, and personalization that online therapy provides.
If you’re experiencing complex emotions or cognitive challenges related to memory loss, online therapy can be a convenient and effective form of care. Utilizing an online therapy platform like BetterHelp, you can easily schedule appointments with a licensed therapist and receive frequent reminders prior to your sessions, which can be helpful if you’re experiencing memory impairment. BetterHelp will match you with a therapist based on your needs and preferences, so you’ll have a good chance of connecting with someone who can address your specific concerns related to memory, your self-conception, or other areas. Continue reading for reviews of BetterHelp therapists from those who have sought help for similar challenges in the past.
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