Determinants in the adult recall of autobiographical childhood memories

Worledge, George (1998). Determinants in the adult recall of autobiographical childhood memories. PhD thesis The Open University.



This thesis investigated the characteristics of childhood memories that remain accessible over the whole life span. On the assumption that one of the primary purposes of autobiographical memory is its adaptive function, it was hypothesised that, in order to fulfil this function, autobiographical memories must include an affective component. That is, each memory will consist of a record of an experienced event together with the accompanying emotion so as to mediate an appropriate behavioural response in similar future circumstances. For the same reason, it was also predicted that, as a person grows older, selected childhood memories will still retain their emotionality, vividness and personal importance. A detailed analysis of the nature of childhood memories was undertaken and evidence to support these hypotheses was sought in three separate studies.

In Study 1, a structured interview was used and 109 people aged between 21 and 91 years were asked to free recall memories drawn from within three - year periods of childhood from birth to 18 years. Subjects' ratings were used to explore the characteristics of these memories and the effects of age encoding subject age and subject gender were systematically examined. In contrast with previous research, it was found that 83 % of subjects could recall memories from below three years of age. Uniformly high ratings of emotionality showed that the affective component, as predicted, was high across all encoding. ages and showed no decline with subject age. Ratings of clarity and realism were also unaffected by subject age. The incidence and vividness of sensory imagery increased with age of encoding, but, again, did not decline with subject age. Although most vivid memories involved imagery, 15%of subjects sometimes claimed to recall vividly without imaging.

These findings suggest that the affective component may have been contributing to overall vividness.

Study 2 using, cued recall, compared latency of response for emotion cued words and object cued words and also used ratings to examine the characteristics of the retrieved memories. Memories were retrieved Faster to object cues but these memories were still rated high in emotionality. Memories retrieved to emotion cues, although slower to access, were rated as more important, more emotional, more unusual and more frequently recalled. Cue type was therefore shown to be a powerful factor in determining accessibility, overriding other memory characteristics.

Although in Studies 1 and 2 subjects selected their own memories, Study 3 tested the retention of details of early experience of school life as designated by the researcher. It was found that detailed memories could still be recalled even in old a`e and that the rate of forgetting declined steadily with age This evidence of persisting retention of early childhood experience is consistent with the view that such memories serve a functional role in that they are an integral part of the 3 individual's self history and developing self concept.

The research provides a substantial body of data detailing, the topics recalled From different periods of childhood and the nature of the memories and charts the remarkable stability of these memories across the life span.

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