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A New Way to Think About Your Oldest Memories

Digging into your past uncovers important clues about yourself.

Key points

  • The subject of autobiographical memory intrigues researchers and can also help you gain greater self-insight.
  • A comprehensive study of the autobiographical memory process suggests both its strengths and its fallibility.
  • Digging into your past can produce important clues to piece together your life story.

Thinking about your own personal past, or autobiographical memory, is a process that essentially happens constantly. Take a moment now to identify the number of times, in the past hour, your mind drifted to some previous event in your life. Perhaps your eyes wandered to a favorite picture of you and long-departed family members. Or maybe you inadvertently came across your high school transcript while you were looking for something else. What was the name of that chemistry teacher?

As common as it is to dig into your treasure trove of past memories, research on the topic has received surprisingly little attention. The bulk of memory research focuses on the recall of information that investigators present during the course of an experiment.

You might be asked, for example, to recount a set of words, numbers, or shapes while the experimenter records your accuracy and the length of time it took you to come up with the stimuli. Indeed, during such research, you actually have to drown out any stray thoughts that pop into your head, such as whether the experimenter reminds you of someone from your past.

What Does It Feel Like to Think About the Past?

Apart from whether a thought about the past makes you feel good or not (not all of them do, of course), it can be productive to understand what it feels like just to engage in the mental “time-travel” that takes you back into your previous experiences. In a comprehensive review paper, Université Grenoble Alpe’s Chris Moulin and colleagues (2022) propose that what guides the entire reconstructive process about the past is the feeling of familiarity.

From their standpoint, familiarity is “a subjective feeling arising from the fluent processing of a stimulus; not an inherent feature of anything you have seen before." By fluency, the authors mean “phenomenological familiarity."

Putting these terms into plain language, the authors mean that you identify an autobiographical memory by the fact that it feels as though it comes from your own past experience. In a way, all memory refers to past experiences, such as your knowledge of historical facts, but in autobiographical memory, the feeling of familiarity originates from your own past life.

The Problems With Autobiographical Memory

The idea of fluency immediately raises the possibility that it can occur with respect to an event that never happened or not in the way you “think” it did. In déjà vu, for example, you erroneously believe that you’ve had the exact same experience before.

You might also have a false autobiographical memory that you carry with you for years without realizing that it’s wrong. Perhaps you’ve carried what you thought was a "fact" about your high school prom, namely, that no one asked to accompany you as their date. It's always made you feel a bit like a loser. Years later, you get an email from the person who actually had reached out to you in high school, hoping to reconnect again now.

Another aspect of fluency that Moulin and his fellow authors point to is that it can arise either on its own or through guided effort. That spontaneous glance toward that photo of you and your family member falls into the category of “involuntary,” as does déjà vu. Many stimuli around you can serve to have this effect, even the photo memories that show up in your social media or smartphone photo feed.

The category of “voluntary” autobiographical memories has an entirely different trajectory. Here, fluency is something you seek, not something that occurs on its own. As the French authors point out, it’s that struggle to find an old autobiographical memory, such as the name of a long-ago place or person, that falls into the category of the “tip-of-the-tongue” effect. The knowledge is there, not literally on your tongue, but buried deeply and inaccessibly somewhere in the repository of your past experiences.

If you’re lucky, there’s someone else you can consult with whom you shared that experience so that, together, you could reconstruct it. Indeed, the authors suggest that, in this respect, autobiographical memory can have a strong social component as we build some of our most lasting personal memories with the people we know and love.

All of this begs the question of whether there is such a thing as an involuntary autobiographical memory after all. “It seems likely,” the authors suggest, “that physiological processes can bring information to consciousness in an uncontrolled and meaningless fashion." In other words, apart from daydreaming, even what seems to be involuntary is likely to be stimulated by cues from the environment, even if you’re not aware of them.

Sometimes, Moulin et al. note, you can fill in the retrieval gaps by relying on “scaffolding” or building the outlines of the event from the knowledge of what generally happens at similar events. You may not remember your high school graduation per se, but it’s safe to conclude that people walked across a stage, had a diploma handed to them, and were surrounded by family and friends. This framework won’t help you, though, if you’re trying to recall what you had for breakfast on that day.

Digging Into Your Own Past

These ideas should provide you with some intriguing avenues to explore the next time you try or are cued to gain the details of a tip-of-the-tongue past event. If you enjoy traveling down those avenues, you can enhance your fluency by taking advantage of the props available to you through such methods of verification as internet and social media searches and simply asking your friends and family from the past to share what they remember.

In the process of socially reconstructing your past, you can also go back and restore relationships that may have fallen by the wayside, such as that prom date. Even if you don't come up with reminders of past people, places, and things, this can help you fill in some of the missing blanks from your personal life story. As Moulin et al. note, through such efforts, “we arrive at constructing...a rich, complex representation of our personal past."

To sum up, although it can be challenging to come up short when you’re trying to piece together the details of your past, the Moulin et al. study shows that it can be worth the effort. The treasury of memories you’ve built up in your past can enrich your life as you try to gain greater self-understanding now and into the future.

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Moulin, C. J. A., Carreras, F., & Barzykowski, K. (2022). The phenomenology of autobiographical retrieval. WIREs Cognitive Science. doi:10.1002/wcs.1638

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