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Author Topic: What underlies a detailed autobiographical memory?  (Read 2635 times)

Offline cheryl j

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There's an interesting article in Scientific American this month about autobiographical memory and people who are very good at. One woman they studied could recall the day of the week and date of everything she did, as well as dates of news events (or answer the questions in reverse - what happened on June 15th, 1975?) She is not exceptional in other ways (she is not an autistic savant) and her memory is not superior in other ways - she has trouble remembering which of her keys go in which lock, and makes "to do" lists. The researchers went on to find and study other people like her.

A while back there was a thread in the forum about our inability to remember things from early childhood. I thought it was interesting that this woman's extraordinary memory only goes back to about age 11, and beyond that she is more like the rest of us.

The researchers looked for other similarities and differences among people with this ability and did find some odd things. There were a higher than expected number of left handed people. There was a higher incidence of compulsive behaviors like germ phobia or hoarding objects. Neurologically, they seem to have stronger connections in one fiber tract, the uncinate fascicle, which transmits information between temporal and frontal cortex. (Researchers also know that damage to this area damages autobiographical memory.)

One thing I was curious about that the article didn't mention was the psychological effects of having such an accurate autobiographical memory. I often regret that mine is not better, and that I didn't keep a journal. (I have trouble reconstructing what I was doing in a particular year!)

I wonder if a person like the woman described above would have a more positive or negative view of the past. One might think there are things she would like to forget. On the other hand, some studies show that people are much better at remembering bad experiences in detail than happy ones (perhaps an advantage in survival)  But I wonder if her view of the past is more balanced than ours.
« Last Edit: 02/02/2014 22:32:53 by chris »


 

Offline alancalverd

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Re: Autobiographical memory
« Reply #1 on: 30/01/2014 17:32:44 »
Intriguing. The lefthandedness doesn't surprise me. In my youth some fellow students looked at the spectrum of lefthandedness among undergraduates and found a significantly higher than average number (over 20% when the national average was 10%) among mathematicians, decreasing monotonically across the "intuitive spectrum of subjects" via physics and psychology to less than 5% among historians. 

Hoarding may to some extent be linked to an eidetic memory for spatiotemporal facts - there's no point in hoarding stuff unless you know where everything is: other people are just "tidy".

Lefthandedness is often associated with high achievement in business - more CEOs are lefthanded than average, and lefties tend to earn more than dextrals in the business world, where a precise memory for facts, figures and dates, and the ability to recall serial data, are very useful.

I suspect the "magic age" of 11 in this instance may be linked to an educational awakening - introduction to algebra, number theory, vectors, or some such key to analysing and organising the world in your mind.
 

Offline David Cooper

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Re: Autobiographical memory
« Reply #2 on: 30/01/2014 21:31:45 »
I heard by chance part of an item in a radio program just last night about children losing their early memories - they lay down memories at a very early age (e.g. at two years old) and can recall them later (e.g. at five), but they then tend to forget them at around the age of seven (that's when the rate of loss of these memories is at its highest), though some manage to retain some very early memories for the rest of their lives (perhaps because recalling them reinforces them or replaces them with a more robust copy, and some people spend more time thinking back than others).

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p01qc1rb/Health_Check_Slimming_by_Cooling/ - item probably starts about 20 minutes in, but I haven't had a chance to listen to it again yet. [Edit: starts 18 minutes in.]

Quote
Childhood Amnesia For a long time psychologists thought that for the first three or four years of life children simply could not form autobiographical memories. But now new research suggests that it is not that we never form those memories, but that at around the age of seven we forget them. Patricia Bauer is a psychologist at Emory University in the United States and has conducted the first study looking at what children forget, so-called childhood amnesia, and at what ages. Her results have just been published in the journal Memory.

I've just done a search and found something similar from a couple of years ago: http://www.livescience.com/14106-infant-amnesia-childhood-memories.html.

Science is beginning to accept that children of around two can retain memories from that time for a number of years and that some still have them as adults, but they're still doubful as to whether it can go back as far as I know it can. I have retained six memories between 12 and 24 months old, and the detail even of the earliest of those is extensive.

What sort of things have I remembered? Well, the memory of my second birthday is restricted to one small incident - a card was opened for me by my mother with a big red "I am 2" badge attached to it. It was the second one that had appeared, and I was already wearing the first. I immediately felt sad for the second badge, because it's entire purpose in existing had been destroyed. My mother read my mind and told me not to worry: I could just wear both of them. Happiness restored. I still have those two badges, and that may be the key to me maintaining that memory over the many years (over four decades) since.

The memory before that takes things back two months and into the last day of 1969. My sister who was a bit less than two years older than me told me about the significance of the new year being 1970 - it wasn't seventy one, seventy two or seventy anything, but just seventy, and that kind of thing only happens every ten years. She explained all of that to me, and I understood it. No adult would have bothered to try, but she did. She always spoke to me as if I understood everything, and that probably accelerated my learning greatly from a very early stage. There being another new year every year would have kept bringing back this memory and enable it to be maintained.

I have a vague memory of Christmas before that, but most of the details will have meen merged into other memories of subsequent Christmases, so it's impossible to tell which is which, but I have one particular vision of looking into the house from outside and seeing the Christmas tree inside accompanied by the thought that this was the first Christmas that I'd understood was Christmas (though I don't imagine that any of the religious baggage meant anything to me - it was all about tree, decorations, chocolate and presents).

I have a pair of memories a few months apart which I think go back before that. There was a little wooden house with holes in the roof of six different shapes, and there were two blocks of each shape. In the later memory I emptied all the blocks out, put the roof back on and then posted all the blocks through the right holes probably at a rate of about one every two seconds. I then thought to myself, "what a stupid toy! It's easy!" And then I stopped and thought back to a memory from what I thought was about three months before when I had to think a lot harder about the shapes and was trying some of them in the wrong holes. I realised then that it was not a stupid toy, because it had been a very good one on that occasion - I had just moved on and it wasn't aimed at me any more. I can't place these memories precisely as there's no other detail associated with them apart from the strong idea that I was still a fair bit under the age of two on the later occasion. That may or not be correct though - observation of another bright child might be able to suggest a likely time for it (but that wooden house was always there and I loved the sound of the blocks falling into it, until that last occasion when I remember thinking it too loud).

Another early memory involves my mother piling up wooden blocks in a tower for me to knock down, and she kept on doing it on this occasion over and over again for perhaps three times longer than the normal maximum - I was surprised by this because I kept expecting her to tire of it and stop, but she just wouldn't. I can't pin down the exact time for this, but it isn't beyond possibility that it was my first birthday and that was why she kept it up for such an extraordinary length of time. That's just a theory though - she can't remember the specific occasion but does remember doing that with me when I was around that age. I know that I was incapable at that time of building such a tower because the fact that I depended 100% on her building them for me is part of the memory.

The final early memory is also probably conneced with my first birthday, though it might not have been the day itself. It's a long story, so I won't go through all the detail, but it involved new rectangular wooden blocks and ramps, plus toy cars, and I lacked the motor control skills to move a car up a ramp without knocking everything out of place. I knew exactly where I wanted the car to go, but my arm didn't respond accurately to what I wanted it to do - I was just too clumsy to be able to do anything of that kind. My sister was to one side running cars up and down another ramp, while my father was at the other side and a bit further away, repeatedly encouraging me to have another go while I refused to do so, knowing that I couldn't do it. I wasn't sure that I ever would be able to do it either, because it was possible that I was an animal rather than a person, destined to be clumsy forever and forever lacking language too. Then something happened which the scientists don't believe possible. I realised that my father didn't know that I couldn't do it, and then I also realised that he didn't know I couldn't do it because he knew that I would be able to do it some day. I was so happy at this that I started smiling, and he looked really puzzled by this - there I was failing to achieve something, and suddenly I was really happy for no apparent reason. I could read what he was thinking and I wanted to tell him why I was happy, but I had no way to do so as I couldn't speak. He eventually gave up trying to work out what was going on in my head and just smiled back. He never really played with us again, so it's fairly clear that these blocks were brand new. My sister was given wooden blocks (cubes) on her first birthday, and my father wasn't too inventive when it came to coming up with new ideas, so the timing of the arrival of these new blocks was almost certainly my first birthday, though they clearly weren't just for me. My parents cannot recall when these wooden blocks and ramps were bought though and have no memory of the event. I've never asked my sister if she remembers it, but the odds aren't good for that - I was the only one for which it was a significant happening, and all the important stuff was happening inside my head. The detail of this memory goes a lot further (with thoughts about language and my fears that I would never gain it), and I can play it back like video - I can even see my mother coming into the room and looking across at us at one point. I know the whole thing is real. Science will eventually get a handle on this when it is normal for everything that goes on in a house is recorded by cameras with A.I. storing a log of events such that even if the video and audio is not kept, incidents of this kind will be recorded in sufficient detail to confirm memories of this kind at any later date. Once it is confirmed, then people will realise that they can trust such memories that a few of us really do have of what it is like to be inside the head of a 12-month-old child. My thinking was as clear as it is now, and the world looked and sounded the same too. I didn't think in language, but then none of us really do that anyway - we all think in thought, but we learn to translate those thoughts into language and back as a way of clarifying our thoughts and checking them for errors. When I started writing this sentence, I had the entire idea for it in my mind right at the start and put it together in an instant, but the rest of the process of producing these words was merely an act of translation of that original thought into language. It's the same with speaking, and with inner dialogue - the real thought is complete before you've even got the first word in your head.
« Last Edit: 31/01/2014 19:07:05 by David Cooper »
 

Offline cheryl j

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Re: Autobiographical memory
« Reply #3 on: 31/01/2014 02:56:04 »
Some memories I can tag to what house we were living in when I was growing up. And I think I can remember moving to our first house when I was one and a half - that it was a big deal - but I don't remember anything about the apartment we came from.

Some memories I can tag to a pretty early age because some body was holding me or picked me up. And I think I can remember being shown to people or relatives, and  that odd sensation of knowing I was expected to do or say something or perhaps wanting to but not being able to. I can remember wearing certain clothes and I know how old I was when I wore them, and what years I got certain toys.

It was strange how inanimate objects were imbued with personality and profound significance when I was small, like the tree in our front yard, my mothers rose bushes, the tiny stream that sometimes crossed the short cut I took to school, dust motes, the pattern of the kitchen linoleum, a favored cup, my bike, particular shades of crayola crayons which were superior to others, highly prized marbles. I don't really know how to explain what I mean. It was just a different way of looking at the world.

I can't really think without essentially talking to myself unless I am intently watching something or painting. Or perhaps fixing something, threading a needle, etc. But anything complicated, or abstract, figuring out a plan, the odds or something happening or going wrong,  etc involves words for me.

I heard a story about a guy who was so frustrated by his inability to remember most of his own life, that he approached it as if he were a private detective or a journalist writing a biography, and tried to piece it all back together by going back over records, rechecking dates, talking to people, reading old newspapers, etc.
« Last Edit: 31/01/2014 03:21:14 by cheryl j »
 

Offline David Cooper

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Re: Autobiographical memory
« Reply #4 on: 31/01/2014 19:20:32 »
You can think without translating into words, but it becomes a habit to translate into words and to translate back into thought in order to check for errors in the thought, and it's hard to switch off this translation to words mechanism and to think without it, although you can usually do so in an emergency where you don't have time for it and simply act.

A good example of this would be a situation when I was five, on holiday on the mainland of Orkney with my family, walking along the main street in Stromness which had no pavements (and may still lack them for all I know). We were walking down the middle of the road, parents behind, two children ahead. There had been no traffic, but we heard the sound of an engine behind us. The engine noise became louder at a surprising rate and was within a few seconds at an alarming volume, so we all turned round. My parents stepped together and blocked my view, so I couldn't see the car, but my sister could. The next moment, both my parents started moving to the left fast, clearly not having any time to do anything about getting us out of the way. My sister started moving to the right as she was nearer to that side of the road, while I processed the thought that if my parents had to move like that, the car must be nearly on them and I would have to move with them, so I did, and never saw the car until after I'd reached the wall and looked to my left, seeing the back of the car as it shot away, probably at 50-60mph. I didn't move out of instinct, but actually thought it through, and there was no time to translate the thoughts into words.

You can, with practice, go back to thinking without the translation to words step in situations where you would normally do the translating stuff, but it's hard to block it - you do it because it's a very good way to catch and correct errors. When you're dealing with abstract ideas though, it's done for more reasons than just error catching - it helps you to keep focussed on the key ideas you're trying to handle and to arrange them in such a way as to be able to process them.
 

Offline cheryl j

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Re: What underlies a detailed autobiographical memory?
« Reply #5 on: 06/02/2014 00:29:41 »
When I see articles like this it does make me wonder how reliable any of my memories are. I often wish that like Word, there was something I could click on to retrieve earlier versions of any memory. Or I'd be interested to know whether faithful journal-keepers have ever pricked up on old journal with an entry about about an event and discovered that it didn't match their current recollection. I also wonder if the memory of something you haven't thought about for a very long time is more accurate, because it hasn't undergone constant revision, or less accurate because it has "faded" or weakened. Any way here is the link, if anyone is interested.

Your memory is no video camera: It edits the past with present experiences
http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/02/140204185651.htm

« Last Edit: 06/02/2014 00:35:21 by cheryl j »
 

Offline cheryl j

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Re: What underlies a detailed autobiographical memory?
« Reply #6 on: 06/02/2014 00:45:53 »


A good example of this would be a situation when I was five, on holiday on the mainland of Orkney with my family, walking along the main street in Stromness which had no pavements (and may still lack them for all I know). We were walking down the middle of the road, parents behind, two children ahead. There had been no traffic, but we heard the sound of an engine behind us. The engine noise became louder at a surprising rate and was within a few seconds at an alarming volume, so we all turned round. My parents stepped together and blocked my view, so I couldn't see the car, but my sister could. The next moment, both my parents started moving to the left fast, clearly not having any time to do anything about getting us out of the way. My sister started moving to the right as she was nearer to that side of the road, while I processed the thought that if my parents had to move like that, the car must be nearly on them and I would have to move with them, so I did, and never saw the car until after I'd reached the wall and looked to my left, seeing the back of the car as it shot away, probably at 50-60mph. I didn't move out of instinct, but actually thought it through, and there was no time to translate the thoughts into words.


That was, though, kind of a spacial problem, and I can understand solving it visually without words.Can you think without words about non-spacial, logical problems or other types of judgements?

 Is it possible that in that situation you were also influenced by the fast observation that two people made one decision, and one person,  who was also younger and less experienced, made a different one.  If you yourself can't see the car, what's the best option?)

 

Offline David Cooper

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Re: What underlies a detailed autobiographical memory?
« Reply #7 on: 06/02/2014 20:19:07 »
When I see articles like this it does make me wonder how reliable any of my memories are. I often wish that like Word, there was something I could click on to retrieve earlier versions of any memory.

That study though deliberately tried to introduce a change. If you're just recalling things and not setting out to change them, it isn't clear that you're necessarily going to modify them in any important way. Maybe you can add peripheral detail though in the same way your dreams can generate all sorts of backgrounds and locations for imagined actions to take place against or in, but the key parts of the memory may not be affected by this. I don't know if you've heard of the Goodies - they did a lot of comedy programmes in the '70s, one particular episode of which were shown a few times back then but never since that time. I've had a particular memory from that episode in which I remembered events taking place against a background of blue sky. Having seen it again recently on DVD, the actual background was of brown hillside, but the action that mattered fitted my memory of it precisely.

Quote
I also wonder if the memory of something you haven't thought about for a very long time is more accurate, because it hasn't undergone constant revision, or less accurate because it has "faded" or weakened. Any way here is the link, if anyone is interested.

It's likely that most of them just lose detail until they reach the point where there's not enough left of them to feel like a memory at all. Those which are remembered from time to time though will be reinforced or replaced, and changes can get into them in the process. Whether those changes are significant or not will depend on what was done with the memory when it was remembered and thought about - speculation about missing parts could potentially add false facts to the original memory to replace those missing bits.

That [the incident on road in Orkney] was, though, kind of a spacial problem, and I can understand solving it visually without words. Can you think without words about non-spacial, logical problems or other types of judgements?

The thoughts that went through my head were not expressed in words, but if I put some of them into words they come out as follows: they look highly alarmed; he's shouted something to her, and started to push her to the left [I can't remember now what he shouted, but it was aimed at her and not at us]; I can't see how the car could really be close enough for them to need to start to run like that because of the great distance it would have needed to have covered in just a few seconds to get anywhere near us, but it must somehow be as near as it sounds; they haven't even had time to try to get us out of the way, so this is clearly extremely urgent; if they have to move that fast, I need to move fast too, even though I still can't believe the car can really be so close; I'll move with them as they must know that they're heading away from the line the car's taking; my sister's started going the other way [this is at the exact point when I start moving] - she must be able to see the car and she clearly thinks it's going to keep going down the middle of the road [it actually feels as if we're making a joint decision to go opposite ways]; I can tell too that she knows that I'm starting to move the other way from her and that each of us knows that the other is going to get clear; I've got to keep my father between me and the car and not fall behind; they must be really worried about us because they still haven't had the chance to look round.

All of those thoughts must have run through in about a second.

Quote
Is it possible that in that situation you were also influenced by the fast observation that two people made one decision, and one person,  who was also younger and less experienced, made a different one.  If you yourself can't see the car, what's the best option?)

From my point of view, experience differences had no role - all three of them knew what they were about, and so did I. I read their behaviour and calculated from it what the car must be doing, but I was also thinking about what they would be thinking. People talk about time slowing down in situations like that. It didn't seem to slow down for me, but a lot of thoughts ran through at high speed without being slowed down by translating them into words, and that could make it seem to many people as if time slowed, but it's more a case of non-essential processing being switched off so that the essential stuff can run through without interruptions.

Now, someone could argue that all those thoughts are a false memory - an account made up after the event to fit in with what happened. They could also claim that what really happened was just an instinctive response to get out of the way when you see other people reacting to something that's clearly dangerous. What you can do to determine which account is true is to examine your own memories, and they don't need to be old ones - after any event of this kind you can go through them again in your mind afterwards and take note of all the detailed thoughts that went through your head far too quickly for you to have put them into words. Write them all down. See how many words are involved and calculate the rate they'd have to be produced at in order to get through them all in the time they would have had to occur in. In the case of my example we're talking about 200+ words in a second, and the list of thoughts is not even complete.
 

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Re: What underlies a detailed autobiographical memory?
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