Autobiographical memory: Forgetting the personal past

Autobiographical memories are our recollections of specific episodes from the past. Tulving (2002) described autobiographical remembering as “mental time travel”, in which we relive the best, the worst, and the everyday occurrences of our lives. In the absence of significant disruption, we remember many things from our past. However, autobiographical memory is selective. We tend to remember events that place us in a good light, support our current self-image, or promote ongoing activities. And we try to forget—with varying success—memories of experiences that undermine the current self, contradict our beliefs, plans, and goals, and increase anxiety or other negative emotions (Conway, 2005; Conway & Pleydell-Pearce, 2000).

Conway (2005; Conway & Pleydell-Pearce, 2000) proposed the Self-Memory System (SMS) to describe the structure of autobiographical memory and the relationship between autobiographical memory and self-identity. In the SMS, people’s knowledge about their lives is organized hierarchically across three levels of increasing specificity: lifetime periods (e.g., when I was in high school), general events (e.g., going to Maths class), and event-specific knowledge (e.g., the day I had our final Maths exam). A specific autobiographical memory is generated by a stable pattern of activation across all three levels of knowledge. However, the construction of this pattern of activation is constrained by executive control processes that coordinate access to the knowledge base and modulate output from it (Conway, 2005; Conway & Pleydell-Pearce, 2000).These control processes are termed the “working self”. The working self can facilitate or inhibit retrieval of certain memories depending on current goals. In the SMS, goals influence the encoding, storage, and retrieval of information to determine the content and accessibility of autobiographical memories (Conway, 2005; see also Conway, Justice, & D’Argembeau, 2019).

Conway (2005; Conway, Singer, &Tagini, 2004) identified two fundamental principles underlying autobiographical memory.The first is “coherence”, which refers to the need to maintain an integrated and consistent sense of one’s life experiences. The second is “correspondence”, which refers to the need for episodic memory to correspond with reality. These principles are not mutually exclusive. Rather, a balance between them is required for a functioning autobiographical memory system. This distinction between coherence and correspondence is not new. Bartlett (1932) emphasized that the purpose of remembering, particularly in a social context, is to share our impressions with others, so people are likely to construct and embellish upon their memories rather than generate a strictly accurate representation of what happened. Conway (2005) argued that over time, in long-term memory, coherence takes precedence over correspondence.

One main idea from the SMS is that what is remembered from our lives, and what in turn is forgotten, is determined by our current working self (the image of ourselves we have at any given time). As noted above, autobiographical memories that are consistent with the goals and values of our working self are prioritized for remembering, whereas memories that conflict with our working self are likely to be forgotten (Barnier, Conway, Mayoh, Speyer, Avizmil, & Harris, 2007; Conway, 2005; Conway & Pleydell-Pearce, 2000). Within the SMS model then, autobiographical forgetting is a goal-directed, executive process, where certain memories are actively gated from consciousness. Those memories that are irrelevant, inconsistent with current identity goals, or upsetting are particularly likely to be forgotten.

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