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What is Autobiographical Memory?

By Dr. Usmarah Hussain

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What is Autobiographical Memory

What if we ask you to narrate your life story to us in five minutes with as much detail as possible? Where will you begin, and what will you include? To tell your life story, you’ll need to access a specific collection of memories called autobiographical memories. These memories practically include everything that has happened in your life so far and give you the power to reflect back on them whenever you wish to. They also control how you view yourself and closely impact the decisions you make, so it’d be interesting to know what these memories are.

This article will describe autobiographical memory in detail, focusing on its levels, types, examples, and much more. 

Understanding Autobiographical Memory with Examples

To put it simply, autobiographical memories are a type of memory that you store in your memory storage, typically in the first person, because they have happened to you. [1] These memories are much more likely to remember and recalled later in life in greater depth and with much more detail. Still confused about what an autobiographical memory actually means? The following examples may help clear things up for you:

Your Wedding/Engagement Day

Stumbling upon a photo from the engagement or wedding day can easily trigger a pool of memories from the past. For most people, recalling such memories is not a big issue, are these are some of the most emotional days of their lives. While they may struggle to remember tiny details, most of them can recall the more notable moments, such as cake cutting, bachelor party, or the first dance.


The birth of a child is truly one of the most transformative memories for almost every parent. The cue for such memories can be their child’s birthday, learning about someone else’s pregnancy, or attending another child’s birthday party. 

School Memories

School memories are another type of autobiographical memory that may be triggered by cues such as meeting old classmates or teachers or children’s educational experiences. Some examples of school memories categorized as autobiographical memory include a high school performance, prom dance, or graduation. Some people are also able to recall funny moments from the class, while others reminisce about field trips to other cities. To qualify as autobiographical memories, these memories must relate to you in some way and impact your self-perception.

Understanding The Three Levels of Autobiographical Memory

Experts have classified autobiographical memory into three levels. [2] Learning how to distinguish them can be particularly useful as they involve different types of information.

Level One: Lifetime Periods

This level includes memories that help you distinguish your childhood from other stages of life, such as adolescence, adulthood, middle age, and old age. Some experts like to categorize these memories in other ways, such as memories of elementary school, high school, and college.

Level Two: General Events

Memories relating to general events are usually less fluid and without any distinct borders than those in lifetime periods of memories. These include memories that you remember for a few days, weeks, or in certain seasons gathered around a particular theme.

For instance, as you explain to somebody about a particular fascination you once had, you may say, “I researched about it for a few weeks, and I couldn’t get enough of it.” Memories regarding general events do not have specific beginnings and endings, making it hard for people to pinpoint the time they took place. 

Level Three: Event Specific

This type of autobiographical memory helps you remember things second by second. Some examples may include memories about the time you saw your spouse for the first time or a tragic personal event.

Discovering The Four Types of Autobiographical Memory

While there are certain crossovers between the “levels” and “types” of autobiographical memory, it is useful to separate them to have a fullest and in-depth picture.[3]

Type One: Personal Information

Examples of type one autobiographical memory include your name, the name of your parents, where you went to school, and the city in which you were born. 

Type Two: Copies and Reconstructions

Many people believe they remember their life memories perfectly well, but it is far from the truth. Studies reveal that everyone reconstructs their memories to some extent, but their autobiographical memories are often highly inaccurate. But why is that so?

According to experts, each time we recall a memory, it changes its location in the brain. As the memory moves, it transforms and becomes chemically different from what it was before. This doesn’t mean that we are all a bunch of liars with no sense of truth in our memories, but it signifies those memories tend to change over time, and every time we recall them, we end up reconstructing them in some way. [4] The copies we unknowingly produce can be extremely vivid, but deliberately amplifying them more can increase their accuracy.

Type Three: Generic Vs. Specific

Type three of autobiographical memory is pretty similar to the second and third levels of autobiographical memory described above. However, the difference is in terms of the conscious effort we make to relive these memories. Most of us can recall generic memories from the past without thinking too much about them.

For example, you may say, “Yes, I went to get some ice cream once,” without reliving the day because it signifies a generic event. But when someone asks you to remember a specific time you went for ice cream, you may have to think harder and remember the specific details. For example, they may ask you to describe your first ice cream date with your spouse.

Type Four: Perspective

This type of autobiographical memory is particularly interesting as it allows you to view an event from different perspectives. For example, you may remember going out for dinner from the first-person point of view, called the field perspective. At the same time, you may recall the event from a second or third-person perspective. For example, you may imagine seeing yourself from the eyes of a friend you were with. This type of perspective is what’s called the observer perspective. 

The Impact of Autobiographical Memory: You Control the Story of Your Life

Autobiographical memory holds an essential place in everyone’s life as it is a doorway to recalling and cherishing some of the most important life moments. But did you know that these memories can also influence how you live your life in the coming years?

To understand how you can control your life story with autobiographical memories, let’s consider graduation as an example. Suppose when you recall your graduation, two types of autobiographical memories come to your mind:

  • You topped the class
  • Your parents couldn’t make it to your graduation ceremony

Ask yourself which one of these two memories is the most important. If asked to describe your graduation, which one would you mention first or emphasize more? The answer to these questions would help you understand how you perceive yourself and influence the rest of your autobiographical memories. 

Let’s suppose you decide to focus more on your parents’ absence while completely disregarding your accomplishments. As you constantly repeat the disappointment, you end up not feeling too good, and doing so also downplays your intelligence, hard work, and determination for the future. On the contrary, what will happen if you focus more on your accomplishments instead of disappointments? You are likely to take inspiration from these memories and use them as a driving factor to work hard and get ahead in life. 

Remember that autobiographical memories are unique to every person who has experienced them first-hand. No one else has been or can be in your shoes during the most important moments of your life. How these memories influence your future depends on the way you interpret them. [5] If you focus more on positivity, these autobiographical memories can help you take charge of your life and drive it toward success and accomplishment. 

Wrapping Up

Now that you understand what an autobiographical memory is, what do you think? Are you willing to explore this interesting aspect of your memory to enhance the experience of your life? Are you ready to make the most of these memories and use them as a potential positive influence for your upcoming life? Start doing it today and watch how the autobiographical memories you have always cherished guide you to a much happier and more fulfilled life.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the characteristics of autobiographical memory?

An autobiographical memory is: unique to each individual, easy to recall, extensively and repeatedly recalled, and is up to personal interpretation.

Can autobiographical memories influence my future?

Psychologists studying autobiographicalmemories believe that they can guide the current and future behaviors of an individual. If your autobiographical memories are focused on failures, you are more likely to feel and act like a failure too. On the other hand, changing your interpretation and painting a positive picture will help you use these memories to move toward success.

Do some individuals have superior autobiographical memories?

Yes, some people can have superior autobiographical memories. The scientific term used for this condition is hyperthymesia, and the phenomenon is unfortunately not well-understood by the scientific community so far. Some experts believe it involves obsessive levels of self-reflective repetition, a character likely to be linked to OCD.

Can I lose my autobiographical memories?

Unfortunately, autobiographical memory is vulnerable to deterioration, mostly when a person enters old age. As a person ages, they may find it difficult to recall the memories from early childhood, and their details may start falling away with time. If someone experiences more severe changes in their autobiographical memory, it may suggest an underlying disease, such as Alzheimer’s disease or other mental health conditions.


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