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  • Print publication year: 2012
  • Online publication date: November 2012

3 - Identity, emotion, and the social matrix of autobiographical memory: a psychoanalytic narrative view


Psychoanalysis is over a hundred years old, and the cognitive revolution in psychology dates back over half a century. Psychoanalysis no longer focuses on sexual drives and the Oedipus complex, and cognitive psychology has long transcended the computer metaphor. Still, theoretical traditions leave a strong, often implicit imprint on later generations by passing on basic assumptions and taken-for-granted methods. Consequently I was more than happy to follow the editors’ suggestion to compare psychoanalytic and cognitive concepts of autobiographical memory. When I came across Martin Conway’s 2006 paper, “Reading Freud,” my heart sank, because on three pages he shows how central insights of Freud have been taken up by and have become ingrained in current cognitive research, foremost in his own work. On the basis of these commonalities, this chapter will highlight three differences in the general approach to autobiographical memory between current psychoanalytic and cognitive theories. These are (1) the relevance of identity to memory; (2) the hierarchical nature of memory modalities, ranging from action to emotion to words and narrative; and (3) the intrinsically interpersonal and social nature of remembering. Because psychoanalytic theories are not based on experimental, but on clinical evidence, my approach weds psychoanalytic theory with narrative methods. Therefore points will be illustrated with examples from narrative research and clinical vignettes.

Motivation, identity, and narrative: the life story

Cognitive models of normal autobiographical memory

For over a century, memory psychology followed Ebbinghaus’ (1880) model of memorizing minimal isolated elements and measuring their reproducibility over time. Tulving (1972) originally coined the terms semantic memory for knowledge of interrelated, atemporal items versus episodic memory for more accidental, unintegrated items related only to the situation in which they were first learned, the prime example being lists of meaningless words introduced by Ebbinghaus. Semantic memory opened the path for cognitive psychology to build models of the organization of knowledge and its influence on the learning and retaining of new information.

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