Autobiographical Memory and the Workplace

This month’s Question & Answer feature looks at the effect of autobiographical memory in the workplace.

Laura Crane is a researcher in the Department of Psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. She is currently studying for her PhD, which is investigating aspects of memory in high functioning adults with autism.

She is particularly interested in autobiographical memory (memory for information about the self)in adults with AS and her recent work on this topic has been published in the March 2008 issue of the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

Prior to commencing her PhD she worked as a research assistant focusing on the links between attention and memory in NT adults and also worked on a project investigating autobiographical memory in visually impaired adults.

MJ: the basic premise of your research is that there is a personal episodic memory deficit for people with Asperger syndrome (AS) if semantic memory is also absent.

LC: Yes – autobiographical memory (memory of information related to the self) is stored hierarchically. Therefore, we first have to access semantic memory (memory for personal facts, e.g. places we have worked, people we work with) before we can access episodic memory related to that information (i.e. memory of specific events that we have experienced, e.g. our first day at work). So, if semantic memory is absent, we generally cannot access episodic memory. In my research on adults with AS, we have found that although semantic memory is largely intact, adults with AS tend to have difficulties with remembering specific events from their past related to this semantic information.

MJ: This is something that I would concur with very strongly. If something is meaningful to me, i.e. it interests me or is directly relevant to my work then I find I can code, retain and retrieve that information very effectively. If not, then the opposite tends to happen.

Do you think that this is largely an insuperable problem? By this I mean, given that the way the AS brain is wired, we are always going to struggle to retain data that we cannot resonate with; or at least only to a limited degree?

LC: I actually think this is a problem for everyone, rather than just people with AS. Some of my recent work has shown that we tend to recall memories that are personally important and of interest to us better than memory of information that is irrelevant or not of interest. This pattern was found in both NT adult and adults with AS; however, the adults with AS found it harder to recall memories and took longer to do so than adults without AS, for both personally important and unimportant information. This could be due to many factors – adults with AS are known to have difficulties in ‘executive functions’, for example. Executive function is a broad term encompassing abilities such as planning, mental flexibility and the inhibition of irrelevant information. These abilities are also linked to memory processes and difficulties in these areas may be hindering the memory retrieval of adults with AS. This is just one of the many factors that may be involved in memory in adults with AS.

MJ: Your research emphasises the importance of the period just after leaving mainstream education and entering adulthood as being especially important to the development of the self. It is also, you suggest, key to autobiographical memory and, therefore, the ability to code and retain information.

LC: That’s right. One of the most robust findings in memory research is that adults show what’s called a ‘reminiscence bump’ – people tend to recall events from the period of their life that encompasses adolescence and early adulthood better than memories from other times in their life. However, my research has shown that adults with AS don’t tend to show this pattern of memory – events from these time periods aren’t remembered any better than events from other time periods.

MJ: I think that this has parallels with starting a career or entering a new job. For someone with AS, this is likely to be an above normal time in terms of potential stress and anxiety making the memorising of key information initially harder.

Do you have any thoughts on this and what, if any, measures can be taken to overcome it; possibly in relation to the concept “self monitoring” to which you also refer?

LC: I completely agree – the events that we experience at these times in our life are likely to be quite unique (e.g. starting a new job, going to University) and, as you suggest, can be very stressful for a person with AS. Anxiety is known to affect memory in many ways – it could be that anxiety causes a person to focus less on the task in hand and therefore not pick up on the important information that needs to be encoded in memory, or anxiety could mean that a person feels less confident in approaching people and they miss out on important experiences that other people encounter.

As to measures to overcome issues relating to anxiety and memory, I think it first needs to be established how severe the anxiety problem is. If it is quite severe and is heavily impacting on your daily life, it may be worth seeking a referral from your GP about this.

Regarding self-monitoring, this refers to a person standing back from the situation and reflecting on the outcome of their actions to evaluate whether they were successful in a given situation – taking a third-person perspective on their actions. This is something that perhaps comes with experience but it is definitely worth reflecting on past experiences to identify the source of the problem experienced and how your actions were successful or unsuccessful and why. The next stage is to evaluate what you can do better next time. This will be highly relevant in a work context.

MJ: You talk about the detrimental effect that involvement of the self has on memory in AS and cite the example of children taken on a series of walks and who had to participate in activities themselves or watch another child do the activity; how the NT children recalled events they did themselves better than events experienced by another child, but how the opposite was true of the children with ASD. Why do you think this occurs?

LC: This is a study by a group of researchers at the Universities of Hertfordshire and Birmingham who looked at memory for personally experienced events in children with AS. This finding really surprised me – I would have predicted that children with AS would perhaps recall the events experienced by themselves and another child to a similar degree, whereas they actually found that children with AS recalled events experienced by another child better than events they participated in themselves. This may have been because the children were focusing on something different (and personally important) whilst completing the tasks and therefore failed the experimenters questions. Attention and memory are thought to be very closely linked, so this is one explanation for this result – completing the task themselves may have consumed the attentional resources of the children with AS and they may have had trouble encoding the information in memory.

MJ: What I think what may be relevant here is dissociation or withdrawal from a conversation into ones’ internal world when the subject matter moves away from what is deemed important or relevant personally.

Often I have been in meetings when I have said what is important to me, or the conversation has moved onto subject matter which is either not directly relevant of no personal interest and then switched off somewhat, I have subsequently missed important information which has knock on effects later; I fail for example to refer to something, or do so inaccurately, later.

Do you think that this is a plausible explanation and can you suggest other ways that semantic information can be coded if it fits into the above scenario?

LC: I definitely think this is a plausible explanation. Again, I actually think this is a very common problem and is not just limited to people with AS though! Regarding suggestions for encoding for information that is not directly relevant, someone once reported that they found it useful to keep a notebook in meetings at work of all the things they thought might be useful and to revisit them at the end of the day and to highlight the ones they need to focus on and that are genuinely important. This can then be revisited at a later date.

Research has shown that if a person revisit information they have learned over intervals (e.g. after a day, then a week, then every other week), the information is stored more effectively in memory and is less susceptible to forgetting

It is very hard to give suggestions though as some of our recent research has found considerable individual variation in memory assets and deficits in a sample of high functioning people with AS (e.g. some people have deficits on verbal encoding, whereas others find this a strength). Therefore, any strategies need to be tailored to a person’s own memory profile. People often have a good appreciation of which aspects of memory they are good/not so good with, so they can use this information to guide how they encode and retrieve information.

MJ: I think that the part of your work that I found most interesting was the sections of the social impact of autobiographical memory: how deficits here can impact practically in a social context.

LC: There has been a lot of research on the social impacts of autobiographical memory and there are several ways in which these two interact that are highly applicable in a work context.

Firstly, autobiographical memory aids in social problem solving; e.g. if you have a disagreement with one of your colleagues, to identify an effective solution to the problem you can draw on your past experiences to aid your problem-solving – what happened the last time you had a similar disagreement? Have you disagreed with this particular colleague in the past? Was the solution you used the last time you had a similar disagreement effective and should you adopt this strategy again? By drawing on our past experiences in this way, we can identify effective solutions to our problems. However, if people with AS have difficulties in accessing memories of their past experiences (as my research suggests), this will have implications for social problem solving. Indeed, some previous research (by Lorna Goddard at Goldsmiths, University of London) has shown that whilst NT adults can use their autobiographical memories to aid their problem-solving, adults with AS cannot do this as effectively.

Secondly, it may impact the relationships you have with colleagues – when you talk to someone (both in a professional and social capacity) you tend to draw on your past experiences to keep conversation going and to identify things you have in common (e.g. if you both used to work for the same company, you may discuss encounters with colleagues or similar situations you may have experienced). If you find it difficult to recall autobiographical memories, this will impact on how effectively you can interact in this way.

Thirdly, autobiographical memory impacts on social intimacy. By this, I mean that people in close relationships often experience ‘shared reminiscing’, whereby people recount events that they experienced together (e.g. working on a shared project at work) and this helps in forming social bonds. Lack of this may impact on a relationship, both personally and professionally.

MJ: The effects you cite are certainly highly applicable in a commercial context: how arguments can be placated, or their effects overcome later, by drawing on the solutions derived from similar, past experiences; using the discourse taken from them and; “shared reminiscing” or using areas of common interest to create and bind relationships.

Scripts are an important resource and conciliatory tool. However, if (semantic) meaning is absent i.e. if such a scenario has not been experienced before and therefore unaccessible, this resource is unavailable. How can this be overcome?

LC: I agree that scripts are an important tool here, but there actually hasn’t been much research into script use in adults with AS, especially regarding what to do if an event hasn’t been experienced before, so it is hard to advise on this area. This is something that could be developed with practice though. Perhaps revisit a situation you encountered at work and consider exactly what went wrong and what you could do better next time you encounter a similar situation. Use that experience as a guide for future similar events.

MJ: You seem to be largely advocating a strategy of drawing on analogous situations to locate solutions to specific social events or scenarios? Sometimes as referred to above they simply don’t exist.

Would you advocate creating artificial templates of situations that one can identify which may appear in a work context and, if so, would these be effective given that they are not actual occurrences which you seem to suggest are the only ones that a person with AS can effectively relate to and retain the encompassed information?

LC: In terms of problem-solving, I think that artificial templates may be very useful – e.g. thinking of difficult situations that you may be faced with and thinking about how you could cope with that situation. However, thinking about the past can be an important guide in this task as you will know from experience whether a solution will be effective by thinking about what you know about the person you are dealing with or by reflecting on effective/ineffective solutions to similar past problems. I think that the one area in which memories of past events may be especially useful would be in social interaction as people tend to reminisce about shared past events and use these as a conversation point. This may be the most difficult aspect for adults with AS as it is very spontaneous and it is hard to plan or practice these situations.

MJ: you go on to state that there are big differences in individual memory assets and deficits and how strategies need to be tailored to a person’s own memory profile. You also say that internal information needs to be used to guide the encoding and retrieval of information.

LC: As you mention, my research has found that not everyone with AS experiences problems in autobiographical memory – some people have excellent memories of their past experiences and are able to recall these effectively. However, other people have quite profound difficulties in this area. Therefore, it is important that people assess their own strengths and weaknesses in this area and focus on what they need to work on accordingly – perhaps you can recall memories easily but find it difficult to spontaneously use these in social interaction? Or perhaps you can recall generic memories but find it difficult to recall more specific instances?

This doesn’t just apply to autobiographical memory either. Some people find it effective to use visual images to aid recall, whereas other people have difficulties with visual memory. Therefore, it is difficult to provide generic advice on how to improve memory. The key thing is to assess your own strengths and the areas you feel you need to work on. Also, assess the different strategies you have used – if they are successful, they can be adopted again. If not, why are they not successful? What needs to be done to improve them?

MJ: Again, if the information is of interest and relevance to me, if I can resonate and identify with it, I find that this is relatively easy. It is harder when the data which I need to retain moves outside of this arena even though this is often a critical requirement in business.

Part of the problem is lack of awareness and ignorance of the [memory] processes available. I have tried techniques such as “association” where I link an issue with a subject: “one-is-a-bun, two-is-a-shoe” etc, but I find that these are ineffectual for me.

Can you allude to what other techniques are available and where one can find out, and learn more about, these?

LC: Again, it is difficult to provide advice on techniques as it all depends on what your particular strengths and weaknesses are. The association technique can be quite visual in nature, so if your visual memory isn’t that strong, this probably wouldn’t work. However, that doesn’t mean that it won’t work for someone else. I would suggest talking to other people about the strategies that they use and try them out and evaluate how they work for you.

A technique that may be useful is to organize the information as many different ways as possible – visually, verbally, auditory – as this is more likely to get the information stored in your memory and it can be cued using a number of different techniques.

Rehearsal is also really important, especially if the information is revisited at regular intervals (as outlines above), but most of all, you should tailor your learning to your own strengths and weaknesses. This is a good resource for finding out about techniques for learning and memory and it is worth trying out a few of these tips:

MJ: Coming back full circle to the main finding of your research: that there is a personal episodic memory deficit for people with Asperger syndrome (AS) if semantic memory is also absent.

It seems that everyone is agreed that when the subject matter is of interest and of relevance then it can be encoded and retained.

In a commercial or work situation a person with AS has to work with information or data that doesn’t fall into this category, yet many of the problems that I have experienced at work have stemmed from this.

How can such information be registered and logged internally? Is there a way that a person with AS can turn such information into data that is relevant and, therefore, codeable?

LC: As I mentioned before, it is very difficult to register and log information when it is not of interest or relevant. In addition, my research has found this for both adults with and without AS. However, relating information to something relevant, and therefore codeable, is a very personal thing and depends on one’s own interests. Some people may enjoy art and drawing and could therefore use visual coding to aid their memory, whilst other people may not find this useful. When learning new concepts, it is important to try to relate this to things of interest and this will likely aid recall, but it is a matter of a person trying different techniques to suit their own learning style and evaluating the outcome.

Managing with Asperger Syndrome