Thursday, March 24, 2005

Remembrances of Things Past: Autobiographical Memory

Autobiographical memory is a personal memory of events and places personally experienced. The medial temporal lobe appears to be an important area for these memories, and these sorts of memories appear to be multimodal (sight, sound, smell, touch, emotions) and often lifelong.

In our experience, autobiographical memory is often poorly tapped as a resource or as a conscious part of learning. Maybe it's because the sort of memory that teachers, doctors, or neuropsychologists assess is often of a different sort (impersonal, semantic, etc.).

In some people though, autobiographical memory may appear so strong, that it is a dominating style of their learning. In order to remember, they may have to experience or wrestle with the information personally. Sometimes when we assess a child who has had significant neurological difficulty that impairs both auditory and visual memory, we have used autobiographical memory techniques to see whether it helps them retain the information better. Often it works like a charm - this may meaning weaving the information to be learned into a story that is dramatized (sensory-motor memory too) so that they experience it and then recognize it later. The pictures below show one strategy for studying autobiographical memory. Subjects travel in a taxicab in a virtual reality environment while in a scanner, and then time in taxicab is correlated with brain activity - the area that lights up is the medial temporal lobe. Autobiographical memory is also being tapped in the 'spatial technique' used by Superior Memory champions (originally devised by an ancient Greek) whereby list information is projected on a familiar (autobiographical) scene.

AutobiographicalMemory Taxi
Autobiographical Memory Review
Neurolearning Blog: Superior Memory (scroll down page)


  1. Unrelated note:

    Thought you might find this interesting. The concept they're trying to sell doesn't quite make it but there are some insights about thinking here nonetheless.

  2. Thanks, Mark! I think you're right - there's initially a good insight, but it falls apart a little in the lesson plan.

    The spatial aspects of thinking are really very interesting. But it's not an easy matter translating it into the classroom without trivializing it. Maybe because the idea can be fairly abstract, and many of the processes can be subconscious.

    It's clear too that the gifts of young spatial thinkers are missed in conventional school classrooms. Teachers (because of their profession) may be more verbal than spatial in their strengths as well. - but that is a whole other can of worms!

  3. "Teachers (because of their profession) may be more verbal than spatial in their strengths as well"

    I have to agree with you here. Numerically, k-12 you are getting a high percentage of English majors due to the stress on reading in the elementary grades.

    A push really needs to be made to broaden the talent pool in terms candidates with degrees in the hard sciences, history and math to get a greater range of thinking styles in the classroom.

  4. Here's an interesting online experiment that looks at autobiographical memory using the Galton-Crovitz cueing technique by the University of Amsterdam:

  5. Anonymous1:37 AM

    Oh, it is the first level of Duke Nukem 3D )