Autobiography is about long-term memory

Memory researchers make a fundamental distinction between short-term memory (which I use when I play cards) and long-term memory. The genre of memoir and autobiography, however, is almost exclusively about long-term memory, so I will not deal further with short-term memory.

Explicit vs implicit memory

More interesting for autobiography is the distinction between explicit versus implicit memory. Explicit (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 the format of a memoir.

In this project, I’m primarily dealing with explicit memories (see the columns to the right).

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).

In this project, I’m dealing with implicit memories under the heading → ‘Habitus‘.

Episodic vs semantic memory

Explicit memories can, in turn, be analytically divided into episodic memories and semantic memories.

Episodic memory is the sum of my emotionally based memories of personal experiences of events at particular times and places (episodes). Semantic memory, on the other hand, is a more emotionally detached memory of public knowledge (ideas, facts, concepts, etc.) that we have accumulated throughout life by reading and listening.

The analytical distinction was made by psychologist Endel Tulving in 1972 and is now well-established, both on theoretical grounds and by means of experimental neuroscientific findings.

A mix of episodic and semantic memory

In practice, episodic and semantic memories are closely intertwined.

To each of my thousands of unique episodic memories — for example, the evening when I saw a breeding couple 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 — I have corresponding semantic memories. For example, I know that the little bunting (Emberiza pusilla) is one of many bunting species (Emberizidae) in the passerine order; I also know that most churches in Denmark are Lutheran; and I remember the basics about obstetrics, including the phases of delivery in childbirth.

Vice versa, when I think about childbirth generally, I almost always come to recall the moments when my children were born. And when I think about the legal status of the ‘folkekirke’ in Denmark, memories of my wedding often pop up.

Episodic memories as the building blocks of memoir writing

Even though episodic and semantic memories are intertwined in practice, episodic memory is more interesting from for me as a memoir writer. It’s not very interesting to read a memoir that focuses on generally available knowledge, which the author have acquired throughout his or her life. In that sense, episodic memories are the building blocks of memoirs.

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