Memory researchers distinguish between different kinds of memory.

The fundamental distinction is between short-term memory (which I use when I play cards) and long-term memory. Autobiography is almost exclusively about long-term memory, so I will not deal further with short-term memory.

More interesting for autobiography is the distinction between explicit versus implicit memory.

Explicit memory (also called declarative memory) is the conscious recollection of ideas, concepts, facts, information, and experiences from the past, i.e., all memories that can be put into language and written down, for example in autobiographical form. Implicit memory, on the other hand, is unconscious; usually in the form of procedural memory, which helps us perform tasks without our being aware of doing it (a typical example is my bodily memory of how to bike, or write on a keyboard).

Memory researchers distinguish between different kinds of memory.

The fundamental distinction between short-term memory (which I use when I play cards) and long-term memory is not relevant for this project. (Autobiography is almost exclusively about long-term memory, so I will not deal further with short-term memory.)

More interesting for me is the distinction between explicit versus implicit memory.

 

In this project, I’m primarily dealing with explicit memories. They can, in turn, be divided into episodic memories and semantic memories, a distinction made by psychologist Endel Tulving in 1972 to emphasise the difference between emotionally based memories about events and memories of publicly known knowledge. Episodic memory is the sum of my memories of personal experiences of feelings and events at particular times and places (episodes). Semantic memory, on the other hand, is memory of the knowledge (ideas, facts, concepts, etc.) that we have accumulated throughout life by reading and listening. The distinction is now well-established, both on theoretical grounds and by means of experimental neuroscientific findings.

In my case, I have thousands of unique episodic memories, for example: the evening when I saw the a pair of the rare little bunting in Lapland in June 1965; or the details from my second wedding in a small church in Jutland in 1989; or the moment when my second daughter was born in the early afternoon of September 15th, 2008. To each of these episodic memories, I have corresponding semantic memories, for example I know that the little bunting (Emberiza pusilla) is one of many bunting species (Emberizidae), which in turn are passerine birds; I also know that most churches in Denmark are Lutheran; and I remember the basics about obstetrics, including the phases of delivery in childbirth.

In practice then, episodic and semantic memories are closely intertwined. When I think about childbirth generally, I almost come to think of my episodic memories of attending the delivery of my three children. And vice versa, when I remember my wedding, I can relate it to what I remember about the ‘folkekirke’ in Denmark. But that said, episodic memory is much more interesting from an autobiographical point of view. It’s not particularly interesting to read autobiographies and memoirs that focus on the general textbook knowledge their authors have acquired and remembered throughout the course of their lives. It’s the episodic memories that are the basic building blocks of memoirs and autobiographies.

However, implicit/procedural memories probably play an important in the formation of my self …