Cognitive and Affective Mechanisms

Field and Observer Perspectives in Autobiographical Memory


University of British Columbia


University of British Columbia


University of Oxford


University of British Columbia


Palo Alto HealthCare System

Events of the personal past may be remembered from two points of view. One is from a first-person or field perspective, such that people relive the events through their own eyes, as if they were looking outward, experiencing the events now much like they did before. Alternatively, rememberers may adopt a third-person or observer perspective, so that they “see” themselves as actors in the memory image.

As is true of psychology itself, the distinction between field (F) and observer (O) perspectives has a long past but a short history. Freud (1959) maintained that it had important psychodynamic implications for understanding memory (also see Henri & Henri, 1896). He believed that early childhood memories of anxiety- provoking pre-oedipal experiences were reconstructions that masked deeper emotional conflicts and that one way to accomplish this masking was to take an observer perspective while recollecting.

Nonetheless, experimental analysis of the F/O distinction is a relatively recent enterprise. The first experiments were reported by Nigro and Neisser (1983) and of the 70-odd studies that have appeared since then, more than 70% were published in the last decade (Rice & Rubin, 2009). This increase in the size of the literature is matched by a broadening of its scope, as an increasingly diverse group of research- ers—specialists in emotion, neuroimaging, autobiographical memory, individual differences, interpersonal behavior, posttraumatic stress, and other areas—have taken an interest in field and observer modes of remembering. Thus, the concept of multiple memory perspectives can itself be viewed from multiple research perspectives. To illustrate this point, we begin with a review of cognitive and social aspects of the field/observer distinction. Next we discuss a recent study in which functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), recall narratives, and subjective ratings were combined with a view to identifying the neural networks engaged by field versus observer perspectives. Attention will then shift to the clinical significance of the memory perspectives, before settling at the end on promising directions for future research.

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