Autobiographical memory

Scrapbooking coupleBut it’s not the details of these stories that’s important – it’s the message. What are the stories about – individually and collectively? In order to understand that, we need a bit of background about autobiographical memory.

Perhaps the most important thing to understand about memory is that it is constructed rather than retrieved. In other words, memories aren’t just sitting there waiting for us to call them up. Memory is a much more active and creative process.   Our memories are not so much a photograph as a painting. While the image may be registered in an instant, the final product is rendered over time. We fill in details; we correct flaws; we paint over inconsistencies.

And what is the point of all this revisionist history? The purpose is the creation of the “personal myth” — a narrative account of identity that satisfies the needs of the ego for meaning, consistency and validation. Research tells us that memory and identity go hand in hand. Both are constructed, and therefore we need to think about the storyteller as a minstrel or raconteur, rather than as an archivist.

Erik Erikson, psychologist known best for his developmental theory of identity, elaborated eight stages of life. Erikson contends that the identity is formed as one progresses from one stage to the next. Progress is achieved by reconciling challenges associated with each age and stage. The last two stages, stages VII and VIII, are, not surprisingly, associated with facing the end of life and one’s diminishing capabilities.

  • Stage VII, entitled Generativity vs. Stagnation, is about the challenge of adapting to health and capacity changes, and remaining interested and hopeful for the future. It is about resisting self-absorption, and continuing to invest in relationships, to care about others, and to have faith in humanity.

  • Stage VIII, entitled Integrity vs. Despair, is about reconciling fears, regrets and disappointments, and owning the totality of life and the wisdom that has come with experience.

It is these latter two stages that give rise to the ten stories.