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  • Cited by 9
  • Print publication year: 2012
  • Online publication date: November 2012

14 - Evolutionary origins of autobiographical memory: a retrieval hypothesis


The evolutionary origins of autobiographical memory (AM) are a challenge for evolutionary cognitive science. The search for a theory is complicated by theoretical biases regarding the special nature of human memory, which seems so different from its primate predecessors. Why is it so different? How did human memory evolve, and where does AM fit into an evolutionary theory of human memory?

This chapter focuses on the evolution of one key feature of human memory: voluntary retrieval, or recall. Human memory is special in many of its superficial manifestations, but, from an evolutionary standpoint, its major distinguishing feature is the ease with which its contents are made accessible to consciousness. The evolution of voluntary conscious access to memory may account for many, if not most, of the distinguishing characteristics of human memory. The unique human capacity for accessing our memory banks provided a platform on which the spiraling co-evolution of human cognition and culture could be constructed.

The distinctiveness of human memory

Human memory researchers use a distinctive vocabulary to describe the memory systems of the human brain. It does not correspond to that used to describe animal memory. For example, in the extensive review edited by Kendrick, Rilling, and Denny (1986), no animal equivalents of semantic or episodic memory were mentioned, and the focus was on a monolithic concept of “long-term memory,” as if no further distinctions were needed. Does this difference in terminology imply that the distant ancestors of modern humans must have evolved one or more radically new long-term memory systems?

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