‘Things are sweeter when they’re lost. I know–because once I wanted something and got it […] And when I got it it turned to dust in my hands.’ –F. Scott Fitzgerald


In Proust’s novel À la Recherche du Temps Perdu the narrator, Marcel, is overwhelmed by an unexpectedly vivid memory triggered by dipping a madeleine into a cup of tea. Such experiences are now being classified as involuntary autobiographical memories (IAMs), coming to mind without any deliberate attempt at retrieval. Ebbinghaus (1885/1964) was first to define them as a distinct type of memories. […]

In this article we review the results of recent research programmes offering insights into IAMs in psychopathology, ageing, and their relevance to the real world, and other subjective experiences, such as déjà vu. […]

Involuntary memories come in different forms. Some occur in pathological and drug-induced states, such as ‘flashbacks’ experienced by LSD users sometime after the original trip, triggered by auditory and visual cues. These flashbacks have been defined as ‘transient, spontaneous reoccurrences of the psychedelic drug effect.’ Generally, they decrease in intensity and frequency once drug taking ceases, but are often distressing and debilitating when they occur. Some of the defining features of memories in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are that they repeatedly intrude upon consciousness, are extremely distressing and are difficult to control. Spontaneous recurrence of past memories has also been noted in patients with temporal lobe epilepsy shortly before or during simple partial seizures.

However, more contemporary strands of research suggest that IAMs are actually a relatively normal part of our mental lives, and that they form a useful and important directive function, guiding present and future thinking and behaviour. Cues in the environment can provide rapid access to past experiences, which may have survival value in situations that could be life threatening, or require problems to be solved quickly.

IAMs occur spontaneously without any deliberate intention to recall anything. In fact they are most likely to occur when individuals are engaged in regular, automatic activities that are not attentionally demanding, such as walking, driving or eating. It is estimated that they occur on average three to five times a day, and up to three times as frequently as voluntary memories. So for most people they are common, unexceptional occurrences, but occasionally they can be extremely meaningful, as described by Proust, or surprising.

{ The Psychologist | Continue reading }

photo { Tereza Zelenkova, Cometes, 2012 }