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Difference Between Autobiographical Memory and Episodic Memory

Autobiographical memory refers to a person’s account of their personal history or their recollection of specific personal events. It is a multifaceted higher-order cognitive process that includes episodicmemory(Karen A. Willoughby et al.). Episode memory refers to memories of specific events (Kendra Cherry). It is the vivid, detailed “snapshots” that the person recalls as they are telling their story or constructing their autobiographical memory. For example, a person might recall the warmth of the sun on their face and slight breeze teasing their hair when telling the story about their last vacation.  

Autobiographical Memory

Autobiographical memory is a complex blend of memories of single, recurring, and extended events that are integrated into a coherent story of self that is created and evaluated via sociocultural practices. Autobiographical memory is distinct from episodic memory in that (a) it relies on a sense of self that emerges around the end of the preschool years; (b) it is formed through engagement with the world and others and involves multiple developing skills for constructing coherent stories that contribute to a person’s sense of identity based on their history; and (c) has the sociocultural function of defining and regulating a person’s emotions (Robyn Fivush and Matthew E. Graci). In short, autobiographical memory pertains to the stories we tell about ourselves and our lives.

Relationship to Episodic Memory

Autobiographical memory is made up of specific episodes, or episodic memories, as well as conceptual, generic, and schematic knowledge. Most often, these aspects are brought together when remembering a specific, personally important event (M.A. Conway, H.L. Williams). If a person, for example, is asked to recall their earliest memory, they would include knowledge about themselves, generic visual imagery about the setting, and some highly specific information about the time, the location, and their own and others’ actions. 

Autobiographical memories are not set in stone. Studies have shown that people most often remember the basics of an event and then tend to embellish on what happened with the knowledge they currently possess about the situation. So, the autobiographical memory of an event might alter over a person’s lifetime. The basic facts that happened may be correct, but details about what someone wore and what they said might easily change over time (Editorial Team). 

Like autobiographical memory, episodic memory is unique to each person. It refers to remembering past events that occurred in a specific time and place and most often involves vivid sensory, perceptual, and emotional details (Michael A. Gropper). What differentiates   episodic memory from other forms of declarative memory is the person’s ability to travel back in time mentally to re-experience the event at the time of remembering (Karen A. Willoughby et al.).

There are some disorders that result in a significant loss of autobiographical memory. It is one of the main complaints of people with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. Episodic memory may be disrupted by brain trauma resulting from concussion or a stroke. Other conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia, and dissociative disorders feature deficits in episodic memory functions, and by virtue of that, affect autobiographical memory (Kendra Cherry). 

Table of the differences between autobiographical and episodic memory


Episodic and autobiographical memory are two types of declarative memory (Kendra Cherry). Autobiographical memory allows people to develop an idea of who they are by telling stories about themselves. Episodic memory is an aspect of autobiographical memory and comes into play when a person re-experiences an event in the story they are telling. 


Is autobiographical memory only episodic?

Autobiographical memory goes beyond just episodic memory. They are best viewed as overlapping concepts, the former permitting an identity to be formed and the latter permitting a person to re-experience the events that led to their identity being formed. 

What is the difference between episodic and semantic memory? 

Episodic memory together with semantic memory are part of the division of memory known as explicit or declarative memory (Kendra Cherry). Episodic and semantic memory are highly interconnected, especially in the early stages of retrieval when personal semantic knowledge assists the memory search and retrieval of events (Karen A. Willoughby et al). However, while episodic memory has been associated with increased activity in the hippocampus and refers to the recollection of events with clear spatiotemporal contexts, like when recalling autobiographical events (Michael A. Gropper), semantic memory is focused on general knowledge about the world (Karen A. Willoughby et al). It is the capacity to recall and apply meaning, facts, and knowledge without a spatiotemporal context, for example, recalling that the Pacific Ocean is that largest Ocean without necessarily recalling when you learned that fact. In other words, semantic memory is independent of time, place, and any sense of re-experiencing a past event. 

What is an example of an episodic memory?

Examples of episodic memories might be a person’s first kiss, their first day of school, a friend’s birthday party, or a sibling’s graduation. In addition to the overall recall of the event itself, episodic memory includes the five senses as well as the location and time of the events. 

Which is the best example of an autobiographical memory?

The best example of an autobiographic memory is the story a person tells when asked to recall their very first memory as a child. 

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References :

[0]Robyn Fivush, Matthew E. Graci. “Memory and Social Identity.” In Learning and Memory: A Comprehensive Reference (second edition), 2017. Taylor and Francis.

[1]Michael A. Gropper. “Consciousness, Memory, and Anesthesia.”In Miller's Anesthesia (ninth edition), Chapter 9, 2020. Elsevier.

[2]M.A. Conway and Williams, H. L. “Autobiographical Memory.”In Learning and Memory: A Comprehensive Reference, Volume 2, 2008, pp. 893-909. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-012370509-9.00135-2.

[3]Karen A. Willoughby, Desrocher, Mary, Levine, Brian and Rovet, Joanne F. “Episodic and Semantic Autobiographical Memory and Everyday Memory during Late Childhood and Early Adolescence.” Frontiers of Psychology, 28 February 2012. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00053

[4]Kendra Cherry. What Is Episodic Memory? Verywell Mind. May 19, 2022. https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-episodic-memory-2795173

[5]Editorial Team. “4 Examples of Autobiographical Memory.” BetterHelp. 2022. https://www.betterhelp.com/advice/memory/4-examples-of-autobiographical-memory/

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