Knowledge structures in the organization and retrieval of autobiographical memories

Brian J. Reiser*, John B. Black, Robert P. Abelson

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

176 Scopus citations


In this paper, the role of knowledge structures in organizing and retrieving autobiographical experiences is investigated. It is proposed that autobiographical events are organized in memory by the knowledge structures that guided comprehension and planning during the experience. Individual experiences are retrieved from memory by first accessing the knowledge structures used to encode the event, then using information in those structures to predict features of the target event, thus directing search to paths likely to lead to that event. Two types of structures are investigated as candidates for these organizing contexts. Activities are sequences of actions performed to achieve a goal, while general actions are situation-free components occurring as part of several activities and represent what is common to that action across those activities. It is predicted that activities are more important in retrieving experiences, because (1) these structures constitute the principal contexts used to store experiences and (2) information contained within these structures is more useful for predicting features of target events. The greater utility of activities in retrieving experiences was demonstrated in two autobiographical memory retrieval time experiments. First, retrieval of a personal experience matching an activity and action combination was faster when subjects were given an activity cue before a general action cue, because processing could get a "head start" when the activity context was presented first. Second, specifying an activity and action led to faster memory retrievals than specifying only the action, while no such facilitation occurred when an activity was augmented by a general action. In both experiments, retrieval was slowed when more processing was required to infer probable features of the target experience, as predicted by the directed nature of the search process. These experiments and this model provide a general framework for studying the organization of events in autobiographical memory.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)89-137
Number of pages49
JournalCognitive Psychology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1985

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Artificial Intelligence


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