Involuntary and voluntary autobiographical memory

Autobiographical memory is our everyday memory for personally experienced past events and is thought to be crucial in maintaining a sense of self and identity.

Our research distinguishes between memories that are deliberately recalled and those that come to mind spontaneously without us trying to recall anything. Our primary focus has been the nature of involuntary autobiographical memories and how they differ from voluntary autobiographical memories.

We have developed a new research method, which induces and measures involuntary memories in the laboratory by modelling the conditions in which involuntary memories occur in everyday life (Schlagman & Kvavilashvili, 2008). Our results show that involuntary memories are recalled twice as fast than voluntary memories. This method has enabled world wide research on the underlying mechanisms of involuntary memories, and has been recently extended to the study of spontaneous thoughts about the future.

Another novel line of research concerns the so called involuntary semantic memories or mind-pops, which are isolated fragments of general knowledge such as a particular word or saying, a visual image or a song/melody, that pop into our mind and often surprise us with their irrelevance to the current situation. Although general public and novelists (e.g., Nabokov, Shalamov) have long noted the existence of mind-pops, especially songs and melodies coming to mind unexpectedly, empirical research on this topic started only in late 1990s at the University of Hertfordshire (subsequently published in Kvavilashvili & Mandler, 2004).

Our results consistently show that involuntary semantic memories do exist, even though there is large individual variability in reported frequency and type of mind-pops experienced (verbal, visual or musical). Subsequent research has also examined the conditions in which they occur in everyday life and their prevalence as a function of age and clinical conditions (e.g., schizophrenia, depression). Results show that mind-pops are reported by even very young children (5-year olds), but the number of people reporting experiencing them diminishes as people get older. Of particular interest are findings which show that schizophrenia patients report experiencing mind-pops more frequently than controls and people with depression (Elua et al., 2012; 2015). These findings suggest a novel idea that mind-pops may be a raw cognitive material for at least some of the auditory hallucinations in schizophrenia. See Scientific American article by Ferris Jabr.