Dr. Elke Ahlsdorf
Interview of June 8, 2010 with Astrid Söthe-Röck
What is autobiographic memory?
The autobiographic memory presents a very special ability that can only be found in humans. The autobiographic memory stores memories on incidents of our life’s. In accordance to Tulving, one of the most significant researcher of the autobiographic memory, there are a few central attributes of the autobiographic memories. They are normally very vivid, detailed, characterized by an emotional significance and allow a feeling of reliving. Here Tulving speaks of a “mental journey through time”.
How many experiences that we gather throughout our life’s, are stored in the autobiographic memory?
In general, we store most of our impressions of life in the memory, but only a small part is consciously remembered. Of course, personally important incidents are mostly remembered. In memory research, they are the so called “landmark events”. Meaning milestones in the personal biography, radical changes like school enrolment, entrants, wedding and so on. But also other events are remembered, if they have an emotional meaning to us. For a later retrieval, a memory content- it being a single fact or a particular event- has to be accessible for a certain amount of time in the so called working memory of conscious perception, before in can be stored in long-term memory.
Who and what decides what is stored and what is not?
In the end, attentional processes decide about what is stored or what is not. Almost all sensory stimuli or more complex incidents are stored, but only what is consciously processed can consciously be retrieved, be memorized. What is important for the individual depends on his or her experiences, motives and interests. What is important to one can be absolutely uninteresting for another. Such attentional processes play a role in psychological diseases for example. When certain, actually insignificant occurrences become a special relevance. A person with social phobia will surely remember situations in which it is about contact to other people, much stronger than other people because he perceives them as threatening.
Do our memories always conform with the truth?
No. Our memory is not objective to the point that it is easily influenced. Findings of the so called “false memories” thus memory deceptions, show in contrary, that our memory can be deceived with relatively easy tricks. Amongst others, Elisabeth Loftus performed various tests in which she was able to show, that through stories of others, through pictures etc., autobiographical memories on incidents were induced. Incidents that never really happened, for example the story about the child getting lost in the mall. Also studies on witness statements at court show continually, how easily memories can be falsified.
What importance do memories have for our present life?
Special about autobiographic memory is, that it allows us to plan for the future in the present time, on the basis of past memories. Meaning that we are strongly influenced in our present time as well as our future, through past experiences. Those memories and experiences are made available to us through the autobiographic memory. So memories have a central meaning to our present life.
Does the importance of memories change with age?
There are hints that with age the evaluation of memories change. It is referred to as the so called “positivity effect” or “paradox contentment”. That means that with age, positive memories prevail or that in retrospective, negative incidents are positively rated. As for my grandfather, whose central memory was of the feeling of comradeship during wartimes, even though he had many terrible experiences during this time. Of course there are many older people that do not succeed and still suffer from traumatic memories on past incidents.
What must I do, to not forget a certain incident under any circumstances?
Memory contents can be stored better if they are intensely processed. The more sensory modalities are involved, the deeper is the process. That means, we should try to remember visual and acoustic attributes as well as smells or emotional impressions. Also a incident is firmly stored, the more it is retrieved and with each memory the possibility to remember it in older age, rises. Furthermore, reminders such as photos or notes help to preserve the feeling of reliving, which is a central feature of autobiographic memory. Last but not least, sharing, speaking to others about memories, e.g. in the biographical work, can work against forgetting.
What can we do for a vital autobiographic memory in later life?
The same applies here as it does for a normal good memory: stay mentally fit and be in motion, mentally as well as physically. And of course we can try to encourage our autobiographic memory by trying to pay necessary attention to things, to walk through life consciously, so we can notice and store occurrences that play a role for us. And through those reminders we can try to keep memories alive as long as possible.
Alzheimer’s Disease goes along with memory dysfunctions. Nevertheless, patients can surprisingly well account for incidents of childhood or youth. Does the autobiographic memory preserve in the course of Alzheimer’s Disease?
In my own research I was able to prove, that already in the early stage of a possible later Alzheimer’s Disease- the so called mild cognitive impairment- the ability of remembering specific autobiographic episodes is deteriorating. The patients were less able to remember classical, specific occurrences. Occurrences that are characterized for their uniqueness, their richness of details and emotional significance. They mostly remembered “general events” such as regular Sunday walks with their parents, memories that were less precise and detailed. At the stage of a manifested light Alzheimer’s Disease, those difficulties increase even more. This loss of autobiographic memory can go as far as that in the end, only fragments of personal memories in the form of a few little facts remain.
Elke Ahlsdorf was born in Bad Urach in 1975. She studied psychology at the University of Heidelberg and wrote her dissertation on Person-Environment-Fit of people of advanced old age under Prof. Dr. Hans-Werner Wahl und Prof. Dr. Frank Oswald at the German Center for Research of Aging (DZFA). An internship while studying, lead her to Prof. Grawe at the practice for psychotherapy of the University of Bern.
After her study, she worked for several years in the section of gerontopsychiatry at the Psychiatric Clinic of the University of Heidelberg. Part of her tasks were for example the diagnostic of memory, the collaboration of diverse clinical studies and carrying out memory training. During that time she wrote her doctoral dissertation on the changes of the autobiographic memory in older age under Prof. Dr. Johannes Schröder. Furthermore, she worked part-time in the Memory Clinic of the Bürgerhospital in Stuttgart, where she was involved in the development of a memory consultation. Since 2004 she additionally trains to be an psychological psychotherapist with emphasis on behaviour therapy.
Meanwhile Elke Ahlsdorf is appointed with a scholarship of the Klaus Tschira Foundation at the Network Aging Research (NAR) of the University of Heidelberg. Emphases of her work are the autobiographic memory, the meaning of music and memory and psychological- psychotherapeutic provision of older people. Her current main project is the establishment of a psychological advice center for older people within a pilot project.
Elke Ahlsdorf lives in Heidelberg with her two children and likes to spend the little free time she has, preferably in nature or with reading. Her biggest wishes at the moment are a trip to Scandinavia and the realisation of her lifelong dream of learning to play the piano.