Key structures in the organization of autobiographical knowledge, and the intersection with culture

Main area 4

Although simpler forms of autobiographical remembering can be found in non-human animals according to our position, human autobiographical memory is probably unique with regard to complexity and functionality. According to our position, this uniqueness is primarily due to culturally transmitted knowledge structures, which dramatically enlarge the complexities of the spatial, social and temporal organization of human autobiographical memory, relative to the one of non-human animals. This enables the construction of highly complex event narratives and life narratives and enables goal-directed and strategic retrieval of events, independent of context.

We have introduced and extensively studied the notion of cultural life script– that is, culturally shared expectations as to the order and timing of major transitional events in a prototypical life course. Among other things, our previous work has examined the relation between the acquisition of a cultural life script across childhood and adolescence, and the ability to generate a coherent past or prospective life story. This research has shown that the cultural life script helps anchor an individual in his or her culture, and it provides the frame that holds an individual’s life story together. An important research question is what this relation between the acquisition of a cultural life script in childhood and adolescence, and the ability to tell a coherent, culturally anchored life story mean for children with a less normal background, such as children with traumatic events in their past.

Another set of studies examines the possible cultural relativity of three key aspects of autobiographical memory organization, which have rarely been studied outside of Western cultures: (1) the reminiscence bump, defined as an increase of memories from young adulthood in response to neutral word cues, (2) the positivity bias, that is a tendency to retrieve positively valenced events much more frequently than negative events in response to neutral prompts, and (3) the positive self-bias, here conceived as the tendency of healthy adults to perceive emotionally positive events as much more central to their life story and self-understanding than negative events.