12 - Remembering personal circumstances: A functional analysis  pp. 236-264

Remembering personal circumstances: A functional analysis

By David B. Pillemer

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In the classic paper on “flashbulb” memories, Brown and Kulik (1977) identified an aspect of autobiographical memory that had received scant attention from cognitive psychologists – memory for one's own personal circumstances (such as location, ongoing activities, and feelings) when receiving an important and shocking piece of news (such as first learning that President Kennedy had been shot), as opposed to memory for the newsworthy event itself. A second contribution of Brown and Kulik's original papers, and Neisser's (1982b) subsequent commentary, was a focus on memory function. What is the psychological value or adaptive significance of remembering personal details at such times?

In this chapter I examine memories of personal circumstances from a functional perspective. First, I argue that memories of personal circumstances are essential components of a fully functioning autobiographical memory system. Second, I critically examine the emphasis on memory accuracy in recent studies of flashbulb memories, and I conclude that the research agenda should be expanded to include memory functions that have heretofore fallen outside the realm of cognitive psychology. Third, I identify and describe three broad categories of memory function, none of which depends on absolute veridicality in recall:

  • Communicative functions: The act of recounting a detailed personal memory to others communicates meaning that transcends the surface content of the particular recollection, and this specialized form of communication appears to be rule governed.
  • Psychodynamic functions: Remembering personal circumstances in vivid detail can have a profound emotional and psychological impact on the rememberer, and on others with whom the memories are shared. Detailed recollection of specific episodes is frequently identified by clinicians as an essential component of psychotherapeutic process.
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