A Coffee Maker or a Time Machine?

This holiday season, give the gift of involuntary autobiographical memories.

Posted Nov 15, 2016

Hal McDonald
Source: Hal McDonald

A current holiday Keurig commercial features a man in his kitchen talking on the phone with some business associates. While he discusses business options, he prepares to make himself a cup of coffee in his Keurig machine on the counter. Dropping the K cup into the cup holder, he contemplates aloud how the company’s “two production options will impact the P&L,” until the distinctive “pop” of the two pins piercing the cup pulls him up mid-sentence. “Hey guys,” he says, with a faraway look in his eyes, “I gotta call you back.” And then he immediately calls his mom to say he’s thinking of her. A busy morning of work has been interrupted by the sudden onset of an involuntary autobiographical memory.

Autobiographical memories, recollections of past experiences that make up our life histories, have long been the subject of formal psychological research. Recently, however, a growing body of research has focused on differences between two varieties of autobiographical memories: voluntary and involuntary. All of us are, to some degree, aware of this distinction. We’ve all had the experience of some moment from our past popping into our heads seemingly out of nowhere, and we sense that such memories are somehow qualitatively different from those that we consciously seek and retrieve. For example, the sudden rush of vivid mental imagery we experience when we catch a whiff of cotton candy like we had at the state fair when we were 6 years old feels very different from a recollection of the same experience that we willfully seek out during a conversation with a family member about that visit to the fair. They’re both “fond” memories, but the first, involuntary one is far more intense and emotionally laden than is our voluntary memory of the experience. Psychological research, supported by brain imaging, shows that this subjective difference is objectively real.

Several recent studies have shown that, even though voluntary and involuntary memories use the same underlying memory system in our brains, and are encoded and maintained in the same way, the manner in which we retrieve the two types of memories is very different. Voluntary remembering “is a goal-directed process that requires executive functions to monitor the search,” relying heavily on prefrontal areas of the cortex “known to be involved in strategic recall.” Involuntary remembering, on the other hand, “is an associative process, instigated by situational cues, that takes place with little executive control and therefore relies less on frontal lobe structures than the voluntary mode does.” The retrieval process involved in willfully calling to mind the memory of the first time we danced with our high school sweetheart employs a different mechanism from that involved when the same memory spontaneously pops into our heads when we’re listening to the radio and hear the song that was playing during that first dance.

This difference in the way we retrieve the two types of memories results in a marked qualitative difference in the way we experience them. Because of the executive control involved in their retrieval, voluntary autobiographical recall tends to be “guided by our overall schematized knowledge of ourselves and therefore favors events that are consistent with such schematized knowledge.” In other words, our voluntary access to autobiographical memories—vast though that storehouse may be—is nonetheless limited to content that is relevant to whatever purposes we have in seeking out a particular memory at a particular time.

Because involuntary memories are spontaneously triggered through association with environmental cues over which we have little or no conscious control—the myriad smells, sights, sounds, etc. that comprise our sensory world—involuntary recall is not bound to any “schematized knowledge” of our life story. If a whiff of hot tar and asphalt through our open car window, for example, links up with a childhood experience when our family was stuck in traffic as a road was being paved, that earlier memory will spring to vivid life in our mind’s eye, no matter how forgettably insignificant the experience itself might have been to our life story.

In addition to being more vivid and richer in detail than their voluntary counterparts, involuntary autobiographical memories differ from voluntary memories in their emotional impact as well. Involuntary memories tend to be “accompanied by more immediate emotional reaction and have more impact on mood” than do voluntary memories as a result of the “less efficient emotion regulation” involved in their retrieval, the person remembering them being “unprepared for their sudden occurrence.”

This is precisely what happens to the businessman in the Keurig commercial. The “pop” from the K-cup lid triggers an involuntary memory of prior experiences he has had with that distinctive sound—presumably in the presence of his mother—and the intense rush of emotions that washes over him as he relives that earlier experience forces every other thought out of his mind except for the desire to talk to her. And this, of course, is the point of the commercial.

As the camera pulls back from the man, holding his phone in one hand and a coffee cup in the other, we see the Keurig machine now framed on either side with a lighted red letter “M” and the cursive word “From” resting on top. “From MOM.” By giving her son a Keurig machine for Christmas, the woman has not just provided him with a convenient way to brew coffee. She has given him a time machine to the past—a past in which she and he once upon a time shared coffee and conversation over the kitchen table back home. 

So when you’re shopping for gifts this holiday season, avoid the hot ticket items that are all the rage this year and opt instead for items somehow connected to past autobiographical moments you shared with the various people on your list. Who knows what seemingly insignificant detail of sight, sound, smell, taste, or touch associated with the gift will trigger an involuntary memory that sends someone straight to the phone to call you up and say “I was just thinking of you”?