You should not trust your memory

Note: This research is part of a series of assignments for Cognitive Psychology, part of my MSc in Psychology.

Autobiographical memory (AM) is memories from past experiences of our own lives (Fivush, 2011). This type of memory contains episodic memories (specific events) and semantic memories (personal semantic memories, facts related to those events) (Cabeza & St. Jacques, 2007). The AM is not distributed equally across the lifespan. Conway et al. (2005) investigated the reminiscence bump, a period in an individual’s lifespan where memories are better recalled, appearing between the ages of 10 and 30.

Figure 1. Lifespan retrieval curve 


Note: Representation of the Lifespan Retrieval Curve displaying childhood amnesia (under the age of 5), the reminiscence bump (10-30 years), and period of recency (recent memories, close to the participants’ age). Retrieved from “A Cross-Cultural Investigation of Autobiographical Memory: On the Universality and Cultural Variation of the Reminiscence Bump”, by Conway et al., 2005, Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology. SAGE Publishing.

There are several theories on why the reminiscence bump period contains such high memories. Rathbone et al. (2008) argue that this is the period of the development of the self, as personality is built through life stories. The cognitive account states that this period of life is a time of novel experience with higher memorability (Munawar et al., 2018). This theory was refuted by Elnick et al. (1999), who demonstrated that only a small portion of the memories accounted for are novel events. The cultural life script account also explains the reminiscence bump, this period registering meaningful and impactful events: falling in love for the first time (adolescence), being accepted into university, and getting married (Berntsen & Rubin, 2004; Bohn et al., 2017).

Figure 2. Distribution of cultural life scripts across the lifespan


Note: Distribution of cultural life script events across the life span (in decades) by experimental condition. Retrieved from “Life Happens When You Are Young: Reminiscence Bump in Cultural Life Scripts Regardless of Number of Events Elicited”, Bohn et al. (2017). Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition. Elsevier.

AM is relatively veridical, and if not influenced by new schemas or biases, it can be distorted according to people’s view of themselves, as most memories. What needs to be distinguished is if the personal semantic memories follow the reminiscence organization like episodic memories within the AM. A study showed that the reminiscence bump appeared when participants were asked questions related to public events (Schwarz et al. 1999). 

Note: Jill Price is the woman who couldn’t forget. She remembered almost every event in her life, which is called highly superior autobiographical memory (HSAM). Her condition was related to the existence of obsessive-compulsive disorder, poor inhibitory processes, and she represents time in spatial form. From Jim Cristea. (2008, December 9). The Woman Who Could Not Forget – Jill Price [Video]. YouTube. Accessed July 7, 2021.


Berntsen, D., & Rubin, D. C. (2004, April 1). Cultural life scripts structure recall from autobiographical memory. Memory & Cognition. Springer Nature.

Bohn, A., Koppel, J., & Harris, C. B. (2017, September 1). Life Happens When You Are Young: Reminiscence Bump in Cultural Life Scripts Regardless of Number of Events Elicited. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition. Elsevier.

Cabeza, R., & St. Jacques, P. S. (2007, March 26). Functional neuroimaging of autobiographical memory. Trends in Cognitive Sciences. Elsevier.

Conway, M. A., Wang, Q., Hanyu, K., & Haque, S. (2005, November 1). A Cross-Cultural Investigation of Autobiographical Memory: On the Universality and Cultural Variation of the Reminiscence Bump. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology. SAGE Publishing.

Elnick, A.B., Margrett, J.A., Fitzgerald, J.M. et al. Benchmark Memories in Adulthood: Central Domains and Predictors of Their Frequency. Journal of Adult Development 6, 45–59 (1999).

Fivush, R. (2011, January 1). The development of autobiographical memory. Annual Review of Psychology. Annual Reviews.

Munawar, K., Kuhn, S. K., & Haque, S. (2018, January 1). Understanding the reminiscence bump: A systematic review. PLoS ONE. Public Library of Science.

Rathbone, C. J., Moulin, C. J. A., & Conway, M. A. (2008, December 1). Self-centred memories: the reminiscence bump and the self. Memory & Cognition. Springer Nature.

Schwarz, N., Park, D.C., Knaüper, B., & Sudman, S. (Eds.). (1999). Cognition, aging, and self-reports. Psychology Press/Erlbaum (UK) Taylor & Francis.

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