A Review

The article “Changes in the Temporal Organization of Autobiographical Memories”, written by Koichi Sato of Gunma University and published in Issue #91 of Psychological Reports, describes a clever experiment designed to test the organization of autobiographical memories.

In order to construct such an experiment, first, it is vital to operationally define the term 'autobiographical memories', and Sato does so: “Autobiographical memory refers to episodic memory for the events of one’s life.” (1074) Second, it is also vital to specify what aspect of the organization of those memories the experiment will focus upon, because organization is a very broad concept, and Sato does this as well:

When studying the organization of autobiographical memories, we should distinguish between indexing and sequencing. Indexing refers to the system of cues used to assess memories, and it is studied with the cue-word technique… Sequencing refers to the relation between autobiographical memories and constitutes one’s life story... few studies have examined sequencing. Brown and Schopflocher recently developed the event-cueing technique to study the sequencing of autobiographical memories… (1074)
Sato proceeds to operationally define event-cueing as a procedure that has multiple steps. In the first step, researchers present a cue word to experimental subjects, and the subjects then describe events from their lives, which they associate with the cue. All of the subsequent steps depend entirely upon material produced by the subjects: the description given by the subject of the life event gets used as the cue for the next association.

Because my familiarity with cognitive psychological terms is still somewhat limited, I was extremely grateful to see Sato define the technique of event-cueing as clearly as he did before continuing to specify what aspect of the organization of autobiographical memories his experiment would focus upon. Sequencing, “the relation between autobiographical memories” that “constitutes one’s life story”, is still too broad of a concept for one experiment to handle effectively. Therefore, while constructing his experiment, Sato chose “to examine the temporal organization of autobiographical memories.” (1075) Unfortunately, Sato does not define temporal organization as clearly as he does event-cueing. He merely states that temporal organization “is important in connecting autobiographical memories and in making them coherent.” (1075) In other words, Sato states what temporal organization does… but not what it is.

Once all of the concepts involved in an experiment have been operationally defined as clearly as is possible, in the next stage of experimental construction the researcher chooses a hypothesis. Sato appears to have had some trouble in doing this, because at no point in his article does he separate out a statement from his description of his experiment and label it ‘hypothesis’. However, I think this is to be expected to at least some extent when the research is pure, rather than applied, and especially when as few experiments have been conducted previously on the matter at hand as Sato claims have been conducted upon the sequencing of autobiographical memories. How can a researcher successfully specify what results are being tested for, without having much previous research to draw upon? Sato's answer to that question seems to be ‘With difficulty.’ Sato states that

In the study… cue words were presented first so that events from a wide range of periods could be retrieved to examine the overall temporal organization of autobiographical memories not restricted to recent events. (1075)
From this statement, I conclude that Sato’s hypothesis can be best stated as: If cue words indicating various lifetime periods are presented to a subject, the subject will use temporal organization to sequence a wide range of autobiographical memories. The independent variable in this experiment was therefore the cue word presented to the subjects, and there were two dependent variables: the range of autobiographical memories the subjects retrieved, and the manner in which they sequenced those memories.

If Sato took any extraneous or confounding variables into account while constructing this experiment, he did not choose to mention them in the article. Personally, I can think of only two such variables, but they’re big ones: the clarity and presence of the mind of the subject. Subjects that are of differing levels of intelligence, differing capacities for focus (especially focus on narrative), and differing emotional states, seem likely to retrieve different ranges of autobiographical memories, and also likely to sequence them in different manners.

The subjects that volunteered for Sato’s experiment were twenty-eight women and nine men (M age = 20.1), and they were all affiliated with Sato’s university in some way, though Sato does not specify whether they were students, staff, or a combination of these two categories. He does describe the design of his experiment, as well as the method that he used to collect his data, very well, and I think it best to include that description in this critique in his own words. The subjects were

…handed a sheet of paper on which appeared 10 boxes (about 0.7 x 7.4 in. each) in which they could write autobiographical events sequentially. At the top of the sheet was printed one of the following three cues indicating a lifetime period: elementary school (1st to 3rd grade), junior high school, and the past year. Twelve participants were presented the cue elementary school… 14 participants were presented the cue junior high school, and 11 participants the past year… Participants were instructed to recall an event they had experienced during the cued lifetime period and write it down in the first box. Then they responded to this event… by recalling a second event… that was associated with the cueing event and writing it down in the second box. They then responded to the second event… by recalling a third event… In this way, they recalled and wrote down 10 autobiographical events sequentially. Participants were told that events (other than the first one) could be those that happened in any lifetime period. Finally, they were asked to date each event. (1075-6)

Before making his analysis of the autobiographical memories that his subjects recalled using this event-cueing technique, Sato decided to exclude “overgeneral events and events with ambiguous dates” from the data set, leaving “317 pairs of a cueing event of a cued event”. These 317 pairs comprised 95.2% of the recalled event pairs (1076), which is a high percentage, but I am left wondering, why? Why exclude those events? After all, the original purpose of the experiment was to study how autobiographical memories get organized sequentially, right? If certain memories used by a subject to form a sequence are more general or cannot be dated by the subject as precisely as others, isn’t that significant? Why exclude those events from analysis? The article does not provide any explanation, and I am left wondering if perhaps Sato should have paid a bit more attention to the presence of these overgeneralized and ambiguous events in the ten-linked chains of association made by his subjects.

Nevertheless, Sato was able to analyze in an interesting way the data that he retained. He grouped the autobiographical memories that his subjects recalled into two main temporal categories (“remote” and “recent”), each of which got split into three shorter periods of time (remote: before elementary school, first through third grade, and fourth through sixth grade; recent: junior high school, high school, and university), and then compared the period of the cueing event to the period of the event that it cued. Sato then performed a series of operations upon this data in order to analyze it that require a greater level of knowledge of statistics than the average reader is likely to be able to understand, and unfortunately for the not-so-average reader, Sato did not choose to elaborate his article by explicitly stating the operations that he used. He simply intersperses the mathematical results of those operations with the conclusions that he was able to infer from them:

…participants tended to recall pairs of events during the same period more often than pairs of events during different periods… This tendency was clear especially for recent cueing events. Cueing events from Periods 1-3 evoked different period events as often as same period events… In contrast to remote cueing events, recent cueing events evoked same period events more often than different period events… To confirm this result more definitely, mean temporal distances of years between a cueing event and a cued event… were calculated for those participants (n=15) who reported both remote and recent events. Remote cueing events evoked significantly more distant events… than recent cueing events. (1076)
Sato then interprets these conclusions in order to suggest that
recent autobiographical memories are organized temporally within a lifetime period so that cueing events often evoke cued events during the same lifetime period. As time passes, however, temporal organization becomes ambiguous, and remote memories can evoke temporally distant events sharing the same period, life theme, activity, location, or other distinctive features… not only temporally proximate events but also temporally distant events can be connected causally or thematically and can make a coherent life story. (1077)
He also suggests that there are two explanations for his findings that appear to have equal merit: his subjects used a forward retrieval strategy, in order to form a narrative progression from remote events to recent ones, or, his subjects were simply better able to access recent memories. Sato closes his article by claiming that further research is necessary to determine the relationship between the two cognitive variables implied by these explanations, memory retrieval strategy and memory availability, and acknowledging that his conclusions may not be as useful as they might have been had his group of subjects been representative of society at large. (1077) I believe it is worth noting that, when viewing this article from a cultural psychology perspective, this acknowledgment is valuable but incomplete. Sato focuses on the fact that almost all of his subjects were young, but chooses not to examine other ways in which his sample population was skewed so that it cannot truthfully be called ‘representative’. For example, almost all of his subjects were not just young, but also female (as mentioned earlier in this assessment, 28 females versus 9 males), and Sato does not seem to consider the racial or ethnic backgrounds of his subjects to be even worth mentioning.

Despite its limitations, I will assert that I found Sato’s experiment and the journal article that resulted from it to be quite engaging. “Changes in the Temporal Organization of Autobiographical Memories” is a short read, and a much easier one than many of the articles found in Psychological Reports; the style in which it was written made it much more understandable to a reader who only has a limited background in the field of psychology. I also believe that while Sato’s work is of limited practical application at this time, it has the potential to be quite useful for future researchers in the field of cognitive psychology. Sato’s pure research attempts to create the sort of reference point that is critical to those working in fields of applied research, including market research. I hope that those working in other fields, such as clinical or counseling psychology, can also use it.

WORK CITED
Sato, Koichi. “Changes in the Temporal Organization of Autobiographical Memories.”Psychological Reports 2002, 91: 1074-1078.

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