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Why do we have autobiographical memories?

Dr. Pascal Boyer

Tuesday, October 16, 2007, 01:00pm - 02:00pm

Washington University in St. Louis, Henry Luce Professor in the Psychology and Anthropology Departments

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There is no good functional explanation for the fact that we experience our past (�mental time-travel�) rather than just learn from past experience. Here I outline an evolutionary explanation, based on independently established premises. [1] Memory systems are geared to selection of appropriate behavior. [2] Episodic memory produces phenomenological records with activation of (a) semantic information and (b) affective-emotional neural circuitry. [3] Episodic memory certainly evolved in relation to increasingly efficient planning in hominids. [4] Human cooperation is both indispensable to survival and thwarted by (among other factors) time-discounting. The new hypothesis is that episodic memories bring about affective-emotional experience of the past that cannot be revised in view of current goals. This provides a context in which there is adaptive value to the activation of episodic memories as quasi-experiences. The model may also explain some design features of autobiographical memory.

Dr. Pascal Boyer