Autobiographical memory and psychopathology: is memory specificity as important as we make it seem?

Tom Barry, Keisuke Takano, David J. Hallford, John E. Roberts, Karen Salmon, Filip Raes

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

3 Citations (SciVal)


Several decades of research have established reduced autobiographical memory specificity, or overgeneral memory, as an important cognitive factor associated with the risk for and maintenance of a range of psychiatric diagnoses. In measuring this construct, experimenters code autobiographical memories for the presence or absence of a single temporal detail that indicates that the remembered event took place on a single, specific, day (Last Thursday when I rode bikes with my son), or multiple days (When I rode bikes with my son). Studies indicate that the specificity of memories and the amount of other episodic detail that they include (e.g., who, what, and where) are related and may rely on the same neural processes to elicit their retrieval. However, specificity and detailedness are nonetheless separable constructs: imperfectly correlated and differentially associated with current and future depressive symptoms and other associated intrapersonal (e.g., rumination) and interpersonal (e.g., social support) outcomes. The ways in which the details of our memories align with narrative themes (i.e., agency, communion, identity) and the coherence with which these details are presented, are also emerging as important factors associated with psychopathology. The temporal specificity of autobiographical memories may be important, but other memory constructs warrant further attention in research and theory, especially given the associations, and dependencies, between each of these constructs. Researchers in this area must consider carefully whether their research questions necessitate a focus on autobiographical memory specificity or whether a more inclusive analysis of other autobiographical memory features is necessary and more fruitful. This article is categorized under: Psychology > Memory.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere1624
Number of pages15
JournalWiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science
Issue number3
Early online date30 Sept 2022
Publication statusPublished - 30 Jun 2023


  • depression
  • episodic memory
  • mental illness
  • psychopathology
  • semantic memory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)
  • Psychology(all)


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