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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
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.  Memory systems are geared to selection of appropriate behavior.  Episodic memory produces phenomenological records with activation of (a) semantic information and (b) affective-emotional neural circuitry.  Episodic memory certainly evolved in relation to increasingly efficient planning in hominids.  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.