- Autobiographical knowledge base:
- Facts about ourselves and our past that form the basis for autobiographical memory.
- Autobiographical memory:
- Memory across the lifespan for both specific events and self-related information.
- Autonoetic consciousness:
- A term proposed by Tulving for self-awareness, allowing the rememberer to reflect on the contents of episodic memory.
- Flashbulb memory:
- Term applied to the detailed and apparently highly accurate memory of a dramatic experience.
- Life narrative:
- A coherent and integrated account of one’s life that is claimed to form the basis of autobiographical memory.
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD):
- Emotional disorder whereby a dramatic and stressful event such as rape results in persistent anxiety, often accompanied by vivid flashback memories of the event.
- Reappearance hypothesis:
- The view that under certain circumstances, such as flashbulb memory and PTSD, memories can be created that later reappear in exactly the same form.
- Reminiscence bump:
- A tendency in participants over 40 to show a high rate of recollecting personal experiences from their late teens and twenties.
- Working self:
- A concept proposed by Conway to account for the way in which autobiographical knowledge is accumulated and used.
Research activity: the diary method
To better understand the diary method, record two to four events each day (including who/what/where/when) for the next five days. Record how meaningful each event is to you on a 7-point ascending scale (1 = arbitrary, 7 = extremely salient). On the sixth day try to recall as much detail as possible from each day without looking at your notes. Do you see any correspondence between your meaningfulness rating and the accuracy/vividness of your recall? What are the strengths and limitations of this technique?
- A video from about David C. Rubin and his research.
- Professor Dan Schacter shows how easily our memory can deceive us.
- Creating a false memory.
- The Life Story Lab at the University of Florida.
- The Life Story Lab at the University of Florida.
- The Centre for Autobiographical Memory at Aarhus University.
Please find below biographies of three important figures in the field of memory: Sir Francis Galton, Martin Conway, and David C. Rubin.
Sir Francis Galton
Perhaps it is no surprise that Francis Galton would lead an extraordinary life, being the half-cousin of Charles Darwin, with whom he shared many commonalities. Born on February 15, 1822 in Birmingham, England, to a family of wealthy gun manufacturers and bankers, it was said that he had learned to read by the age of 2 and was able to perform long division by 5. At the age of 8, he was sent to study French in Boulogne before joining the King’s Edward School in Birmingham at 14. Recognizing his many talents, his parents encouraged him to pursue a profession in medicine, which led to his enrollment (at the age of 16) at the Birmingham General Hospital and King’s College, London Medical School.
Feeling the desire to travel, he took a leave of absence from his studies, only to return to Trinity College at Cambridge to study mathematics from 1840 to 1844. Facing his upcoming honors exams, he suffered a nervous breakdown. Thus, he graduated with only a B.A. (without honors) around the time that his father died in 1844. With his father’s money and his subsequent Master’s degree, awarded in 1847, in hand, he opted out of his medical studies and, instead, took off for Africa and the Middle East.
During his extensive travels, Galton was known for measuring, and counted nearly everything he encountered, with a special fondness for geography and meteorology. Three years after joining the Royal Geographical Society in 1850, he won the Society’s gold medal, while continuing to write travel guides and books retelling his experiences. Galton became the general secretary of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, where he was a frequent presenter, from 1863 to 1867, as well as president of the anthropological and geographical contingents at separate times. He was made a fellow of the Royal Society in 1860, later receiving the prestigious Copley Medal and was knighted in 1909.
During his life, Galton, whose IQ has been estimated at around 200, produced over 340 papers and books, including an unpublished novel he wrote at the very end of his life. Galton’s death on January 17, 1911 brought with it an endowment to fund a chair of Eugenics at the University of London, which would go first to Karl Pearson, of statistical fame.
Galton was a true jack-of-all-trades. Aside from being credited as creating the first weather map in 1875, he coined the term eugenics. He was a staunch advocate for eugenics and established the Eugenics Society of Great Britain in 1980 to drive the field of hereditary improvement. He also named and popularized the “nature versus nurture” debate over intelligence (strongly believing in heritability—in no small part due to his reading Darwin’s Origin of Species). In 1882 he discovered that fingerprints uniquely identify individuals and prompted Scotland Yard to implement a fingerprint database. He initiated the use of surveys as a means to collect data, and formulated the statistical concepts of correlation and regression to the mean.
Galton’s methods were detailed and inventive. For instance, he combed newspaper obituaries to trace people’s intelligence back through the generations for his book, Hereditary Genius, published in 1869. He termed measuring and documenting mental capacities and processes psychometry in his famous 1879 article, Psychometric Experiments. In carrying out these types of studies, he noted that psychological attributes, such as intelligence, fall along a normal distribution, thus permitting the use of percentile scores to rank people’s abilities—something the world’s first mental testing center he founded would attempt to do based largely on physical measurements as well as sensory acuity and behavioral reaction times.
Given Galton’s belief that people’s abilities are passed down through nature, he ignited the eugenics movement, suggesting that the “feeble-minded” should be prevented from breeding in order to improve society’s makeup. Moreover, he developed a technique that is used to this day to study the heritability of traits: looking at the differences between monozygotic (identical) and dizygotic (nonidentical) twins.
Importantly for the study of memory, Galton developed a way to probe personal memories with a cue word. He was said to walk along Pall Mall in London and attempt to call up a memory based on the objects he would encounter along the way. He adopted a similar cue-association technique in the laboratory, making a list of words and then presenting them one-by-one to extract memories (of any type—semantic or otherwise), which he would carefully record and attempt to determine the age of. Crovitz and Schiffman in 1974 would adapt Galton’s general cueing technique in order to probe specifically for autobiographical, episodic memories.
Galton, F. R. S. (1869/1892/1962). Hereditary genius: An inquiry into its laws and consequences. London: Macmillan/Fontana.
Galton, F. R. S. (1883/1907/1973). Inquiries into human faculty and its development. New York: AMS Press.
Galton, F. R. S. (1879). Psychometric experiments. Brain, 2, 149–162.
Martin A. Conway left school when he was 15 years old and, after several jobs in factories, took a position as an apprentice boilersmith. Not the most promising start for a future academic. Fortunately he was saved by the 1960s and abandoned his apprenticeship to become a hippie and go on the “hippie trail.” Kerouac’s Dharma Bums remains one of his favorite novels. Some years later he worked as a train driver at London’s King’s Cross station and then went to night classes in Holland Park where he obtained 3 A-levels in 3 years. Quite by chance his final A-level was in Psychology: a course taken by default when his History A-level course folded due to lack of students. It turned out that Psychology was his subject and not English Literature as he had always thought.
He then attended University College London as a “mature” student. He read Psychology and gained an upper second-class honors degree. During his degree he became particularly interested in the problem of how knowledge is represented in long-term memory and went on to take a Ph.D. place on a full time SSRC scholarship at the Open University.
The Ph.D. was a success and Martin Conway then had a major stroke of luck: He was offered, by Alan Baddeley, and accepted a postdoctoral research position at the Medical Research Council’s Applied Psychology Unit (APU) in Cambridge. He knew nothing about Cambridge and the MRC, nor did he know that the APU was one of the world’s leading psychological research centers. The next 4 years (1983–1987) were momentous and he met most of the leading researchers of the day and developed a productive line of research into the then uninvestigated area of autobiographical memory: an area in which he was to establish an international reputation.
After Cambridge he worked as a Senior Lecturer (1987–1988) at Hatfield Polytechnic (now the University of Hertfordshire) and later as a lecturer at the University of Lancaster (1988–1993). In 1993 he was appointed Professor at the University of Bristol and became Head of Department in 1994, a post he held until 2001 when he left Bristol for a Professorship at the University of Durham, subsequently becoming Head of Department there. In 2004 he was awarded a prestigious 3-year ESRC Professorial Fellowship, and moved to the University of Leeds, Institute of Psychological Sciences, where he later became Director and at the same time founded the Leeds Memory Group.
He has authored and edited several books on human memory, regularly publishes in international memory journals (with over 150 journal publications to date), and co-edits the journal Memory, which he co-founded in 1993 with his wife Professor Susan Gathercole (the journal was, in fact, Sue’s idea). In 2008 he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Liege: a great honor and one he remains particularly proud of.
The approach Conway takes to research is one of “converging methodologies.” In order to eventually understand human memory and the nature of knowledge representation, there is no one single approach or method that will lead us to the deep theoretical understanding we seek. He has, therefore, conducted his research using experimental behavioral methods, survey methods, neuropsychology, clinical psychology, and neuroimaging. He has used these in the study of autobiographical memory, very long-term retention of knowledge, executive control of long-term memory, and consciousness and memory. He is also strongly committed to the public communication of science and has taken part in many media and SciArt projects.
Conway has reported many empirical findings in this area but he regards his main contribution as being theoretical. The overall framework he developed (Conway & Pleydell-Pearce, 2000) for conceptualizing autobiographical memory has been highly influential, as have further refinements of the framework. He has emphasized the role of goals and motivations in controlling what is encoded, stored, and retrieved. Central to this framework is the nature of the self. Perhaps his main contribution has been to draw to the attention of the field that the self and memory are intertwined.
In the 1990s, Conway studied the very long-term retention of knowledge, establishing that knowledge of psychology and works of literature studied at university can be retained over very long periods (12 years and more). He also established that there is what he terms an “R-to-K” shift during protracted learning. That is, a shift from remembering to knowing, and this can be tracked by studying the type of consciousness that occurs when a person accesses their knowledge.
In an effort to investigate the executive control of long-term memory, he has conducted a series of projects into inhibitory processes in human memory and how these can be used to shape the accessibility of memory details. He and his colleagues developed the notion of episodic inhibition, which proposes that during retrieval of a memory a pattern of activation/inhibition is configured over the contents of memory, making some details highly accessible and others inaccessible.
Several lines of Conway’s research have examined the role of different types of memory awareness and the nature of recollective experience. More recently in a theoretical paper he has suggested that states of memory awareness occur in what he terms the “remembering–imaging window.” The remembering part of the window refers to the detailed record of the recent past, which we all have and which stretches back in time several days, gradually decreasing in the number of specific memories and becoming more general. The imagining part of the window refers to our expectations and plans for the future, which are highly detailed for moments close in time, e.g., tomorrow, but gradually reduce in number and become less specific several days ahead. It is in this window that remembering and states of memory awareness occur—for both the past and the future.
Conway is particularly proud of his long-standing collaboration with video and installation artist Shona Illingworth. They have completed a series of projects together using art to express scientific ideas about memory. He has also been able to take part in and help create several English television and radio programs on memory including a BBC 2 Horizon program on Memory and the Self.
Conway, M. A., & Bekerian, D. A. (1987). Organization in autobiographical memory. Memory & Cognition, 15(2), 119–132.
Conway, M. A., Cohen, G., & Stanhope, N. (1991). On the very long-term retention of knowledge acquired through formal education: Twelve years of cognitive psychology. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 120(4), 1–22.
Conway, M. A., & Tacchi, P. C. (1996). Motivated confabulation. Neurocase, 2, 325–339.
Conway, M. A., & Pleydell-Pearce, C. W. (2000). The construction of autobiographical memories in the self memory system. Psychological Review, 107, 261–288.
Wang, Q., & Conway, M. A. (2004). The stories we keep: autobiographical memory in American and Chinese middle-aged adults. Journal of Personality, 73, 19–24.
Conway, M. A. (2008). Autobiographical memory and consciousness. In W. Banks (Ed.) The encyclopedia of consciousness (in press). The Netherlands: Elsevier.
David C. Rubin
David Rubin began his studies at Carnegie-Mellon University, earning his B.S. in physics and psychology in 1968. He was a special student in psychology for a year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology while he served as an aerospace engineer for NASA, doing research and development in optics. In 1970, he enrolled in Harvard University’s Ph.D. program, graduating 4 years later. He started his academic career at Lawrence University, as an Assistant Professor of Psychology immediately after graduating, a position he would hold at Duke University, beginning in 1978. In 1987, Rubin was promoted to full Professor of Psychology, of Experimental Psychology, and is currently the Juanita M. Kreps Professor of Psychology & Neuroscience.
He has also spent time as a visiting scientist at the Medical Research Council’s Applied Psychology Unit in Cambridge, and at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, in addition to various fellowships and visiting professorships in the Netherlands, New Zealand, and Denmark. He is a Senior Fellow at the Center for the Study of Aging and Human Development at the Duke University Medical Center and is a member of the affiliated faculty at Duke’s Center for Cognitive Neuroscience.
Rubin’s book, Memory in Oral Traditions, has garnered numerous awards, including the American Association of Publishers' Best New Professional/Scholarly Book in Psychology for 1995. Additionally, Rubin has been honored with the William James Award from American Psychological Association.
Rubin has been investigating the topic of human long-term memory for complex, real-world stimuli, especially oral traditions and autobiographical memories. In addition to developing a comprehensive theory of how cultures preserve oral traditions, he has also reported on the reminiscence bump in autobiographical memory. He has used memory materials ranging from paired-nonsense syllables, epic poems, and children’s rhymes. Rubin strives to focus on real-world situations, which has attracted interdisciplinary attention from psychologists and academics in the humanities, for instance. His broad, yet exacting, perspective has implications for numerous applied problems, such as neuropsychological damage and psychopathology.
With the publication of his 1986 book, Autobiographical Memory, Rubin is credited with defining the field interested in the empirical study of this subtype of memories, which was previously confined to the clinical domain, primarily. Since the early 1980s, Rubin had attempted to study the topic from the vantage point of a cognitive, rather than clinical, psychologist. His autobiographical memory research has led him to study bilingual populations, clinical patients, and the neuroimaging results from normal individuals. Ambitiously, Rubin is constructing a unified approach to, and theory of, human memory.
Rubin, D. C. (Ed.) (1986). Autobiographical memory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (Paperback edition, 1988.)
Rubin, D. C. (1995). Memory in oral traditions: The cognitive psychology of epic, ballads, and counting-out rhymes. New York: Oxford University Press. (Paperback edition, 1997.)
Rubin, D. C., & Wenzel, A. E. (1996). One hundred years of forgetting: A quantitative description of retention. Psychological Review, 103, 734–760.
Rubin, D. C., Berntsen, D., & Bohni, M. K. (2008). A mnemonic model of posttraumatic stress disorder: Evaluating basic assumptions underlying the PTSD diagnosis. Psychological Review, 115(4), 1084–1098.