Memory is a physiological attribute probably in all living things. In this paper, human memory is the primary concern and focus. The famous psychologist of the 19th century described human memory as a number of single phenomena connected into a whole.
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Arguably, human beings bind strongly on the connective power to reach their past remembrance, which in turn creates the individual personality (Rasmussen & Bernstern, 2010). Without the connecting power, every single phenomena of a memory will fall apart into many fragments causing memory impairment (Vanderkerckhove & Panksepp, 2009).
Psychogenic amnesia is the medical term used to describe impaired memory i.e. reduced ability to process stored information (Staniloiu et al., 2010). Autobiographical memory is defined as an integrated part of a number of memory systems possessing different functions in human information processing.
Autonoetic consciousness refers to the recollection of the mental re-enactment of past events and self-awareness (Nadine & Markowitsch, 2007). This term was introduced in 1995 by Endel Tulving.
Therefore, assigning the term autonoetic consciousness to the phenomena of psychogenic amnesia implies that an individual’s autobiographical memory is impaired and thereby such a patient displays damaged autonoetic (self) awareness.
Such a patient fails to recollect any entity over time and therefore he or she is unable to connect to the old and new autonoetic memories (Irish et al., 2008). Therefore, this paper aims to discuss the role of autonoetic consciousness in autobiographical memory with particular reference to psychogenic amnesia.
The discussion commences with a brief explanation of how the human memory functions. This will facilitate the understanding how autonoetic consciousness aids the autobiographical memory in psychogenic amnesia disorder.
The Human Memory
As mentioned earlier, memory is not unitary but rather it is dividend along content and time. Memory can be categorized into neuropsychological memory and biographical memory (Vanderkerckhove & Panksepp, 2009). Neuropsychological memory is divided into short term and long-term memories.
Short-term memory is responsible for holding information such as telephone numbers and other related few bits of information of time ranging between seconds and minutes. Anything else beyond this is stored in the long-term memory. Recently, working memory was introduced by Alan Baddeley (Ros et al., 2010).
This memory stores information related with the information which is new or old whenever required. When an event takes place leading to biochemical alterations of or damages brain tissue, it may change the brain’s network of information processing such that the victim is unable to encode new information or retrieve the stored information (Markoswitsch, 2008).
Endel Tulving classified memory as habit (routines and procedures) and memory (acquiring new facts and objects). Later on, he distinguished memory as semantic and episodic memory. Semantic memory is the one responsible for storing general knowledge whilst episodic memory is responsible of storing information required within time and place episodes.
Later, Tulving and colleagues added further memory systems including automatic, implicit, subconscious, procedural, and priming system memory. Later, they added a new memory system referred to perceptual memory, which described the acts of reaching judgment due to familiarity. For example, an individual is able is to distinguish between peach and pear (Vanderkerckhove & Panksepp, 2009; Marie, 2009).
Autobiographical memory is defined as the integrated part of a number of memory systems possessing different functions in the human information processing (Noulhiane et al., 2008). This topic has been debated since the onset of brain research. However, there is a current compromise reached by researchers to reflect brain memory organization in a more realistic manner (Dalan et al., 2008; Dubios, 2010).
It is assumed that information enters the brain through the sensory organs, and then it is processed according to the kind of information and process triggered. Therefore, subconsciously processed information either is directed to unimodal neocortical structures (priming) or engages the basal ganglia premotor (procedural learning).
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On the other hand, consciously processed information recruits broad networks responsible for perceptual learning including limbic regions for autobiographical episodic- memory (AEM) and the knowledge system.
The incoming information is first received by limbic structures where its relevance is extracted, compared with the existing stored information and later bound or integrated with them through a process known as synchronization.
Further consolidation occurs during sleeping and this may extend to years. Storage of the information is done by the cerebral cortex (Owen & Coleman, 2010; Van Djik et al., 2008). Storing of information is not done in one single step rather the new information is compared with the existing, leading to reconsolidation and new storage in the context of the previous consolidation.
Retrieval of stored information (facts and events) requires engagement of almost three closely related networks including activation of the brain stem structures that comprises of portions of the reticular activating system, the main information of the respective activity containing neocortical network and the limbic networks which enhance information by adding emotional flavor.
Encoding of information is based on hierarchal arrangements of memory systems (Nadine & Markowitsch, 2007).
Autobiographical episodic memory, autonoetic consciousness, and psychogenic amnesia
Psychogenic amnesia has been studied since the 19th century to provide evidence for the significant influence of AEM. The word Amnesia is a Greek word used to describe the most severe form of memory impairment.
Psychogenic amnesia refers to a disorder/syndrome showing the inability to learn new information or retrieve previously learnt information in an alert and responsive person in absence of other cognitive impairments (Kumar et al., 2007; Locke et al., 2006).
Traditionally, the term psychogenic disorder was used to describe episodes of retrograde or ant-retrograde memory loss (AEM) resulting from psychological stress or in absence of brain damage. This impairment is reversible. Most studies reveal a high percentage of recovery within the first month of Amnesia (Powell et al., 2007).
Recent studies however, have shown a prolonged course of memory recovery in a number of patients suffering from psychogenic memory loss. Examples of psychogenic disorders include dissociative identity disorder (DID), Ganser syndrome, dissociative fatigue, anxiety disorders, post traumatic stress disorders (PTSD), personality disorders, such as borderline disorders and dissociative trans disorders.
Dissociative memory disorder symptoms include hyper-amnesia (flashbacks) or amnesia (Neumann et al., 2007; Serra et al., 2007). The first scientists to describe this condition used the term “hysteria” which was later coined to “dissociation” arguing that memories were processed based on the association of a past event concept, hence, the patients fail to retrieve them due to dissociation.
Additionally, they argued that subconscious memories are associated with emotions and thoughts, which are blocked from conscious awareness but influence behaviors such as prolonged disability to deal with a reality. The dissociations are caused by traumatizing events such as sexual assaults, domestic violence that may, or may not cause head injury (Saito et al., 2007).
Apart from this, the patients display an inappropriate lack of concern about their symptoms, which was referred to as belle indifference (Barsics & Serge, 2010; Cragar et al., 2006). The patients are often unable to regulate emotions or to demonstrate emotional engagement towards the environment.
This leads to a conclusion that the patients can be treated through emotional processing abilities and autonoetic awareness to the retrieval of memories and it is a useful hint in the diagnosis of psychogenic disorders (Magno & Allan, 2007).
Autobiographical Episodic Memory (AEM) is closely connected to autonoetic consciousness (Striacciari et al., 2008). The term autonoetic refers to self conscious/self aware; noetic refers to aware and anoetic refers to unaware (Lemogne et al., 2009).
These terms were introduced by Endel Tulving in 1995. He defined autonoetic consciousness as the capacity that enables an individual to mentally reflect and become aware of his protracted existence across subjective time. Research has outlined AEM to occur in the context of the attaining new stages of self-understanding and self-awareness.
AEM is identified to be significantly important in the current individualized societies because it facilitates in maintaining a consistent feeling of identity to the individuals and thereby, creating a coherent self-awareness and continuity over time.
According to Tulving findings, AEM is viewed as a threefold cord, which results from “the uniting of subjective time, autonoetic consciousness and the experiencing self” (Staniloiu et al., 2010, p.778). Therefore, this makes AEM important issue in psychiatry and psychoanalysis field.
There has been various investigations on the role of AEM’s in one’s sense self coherence and ability to reconstruct oneself such as patients suffering from psychogenic amnesia (Vattakatuchery & Chesterman, 2006).
The conceptualization of AEM has been revised heavily over the years. Episodic memory system is viewed to be equivalent to the AEM system. One characteristic of AEM is the mental time travelling on the subjective time in order to connect the past with the current memory status. It is the last feature of AEM that is fully functional (Nadine & Markowitsch, 2007).
However, it is the first feature to be affected by amnesic disorders. This system requires a high level of self awareness- autonoetic consciousness. The designations autobiographical and episodic are often used interchangeably, however, it is important to note that not all autobiographical memories are episodic.
There are two autobiographical memories namely episodic and semantic (Staniloiu et al., 2010). Autobiographical semantic memories deal mainly with automatic personal knowledge such as names, date of birth etc.
Such personal knowledge is sometimes preserved, relearned, or updated even in presence of semantic autobiographical memory impairment. Therefore, the reason why some patients suffer AEM impairments but still recollect their personal identity is that their autobiographic semantic memory remains intact (Gardiner, 2001).
Literature indicates that AEM develops ontogenetically and is unique to every human being. Of all other memory systems, AEM is the most vulnerable to neural impairments. Additionally, it is susceptible to distortions, misinformation, and dynamic transformation and reshaping.
Therefore, stressful events can lead to disturbances of integrated arrangements of memory, perception, consciousness, and identity creating dissociative disorders (Staniloiu et al., 2010). Additionally, Theory of Mind (ToM), AEM, and autonoetic consciousness are correlated during the ontogenetic developments.
ToM is defines as the ability to make inferences and personal attributes (beliefs, desires, feelings etc) regarding the mental states during the development /growth stages.
Children pass the mirror recognition test between 16-24 months (Nadine & Markowitsch, 2007). This marks the transition of a core self-identity to a cognitive self. In this domain, children understand certain aspects of their mind at an early age but attain the standard false belief at the ages of four.
It is also the age at which the child gets his/her meta-representational abilities through experimental awareness and meta-representational self consciousness though relational between what the child knows and what other sources say.
According to ToM, it is a critical step to understand and develop abilities. Therefore, it can be affirmed that between the age of three and five years, children develop the ability to recall explicit events experienced.
However, it is not well known when children begin to retrieve information on autobiographical semantic memory or become autonoetical conscious that they are actually able to recollect the past events through AEM system. However, at this age kids have abundant and explicit personal information (Piolino et al., 2003a).
Experiencing past episodic events implies that one has the ability to encode specific information related to specific feelings which occurred within particular contexts. This autobiographical journey is filled with pervasive emotional atmospheres of the time, place, and event.
Episodic memory depends mainly on the encoding and re-consolidation of the abundant differentiated elements remembered during the context. The reactivations of such memories in the future involves time travelling (i.e. re-experiencing) the flow of past events within the individuals’ subjective time. Episodic memories refer to the ability to recollect information regarding past events.
The information includes emotions experienced during those events and a realistic time line of when the events occurred (Staniloiu et al., 2010). The process also involves the ability to recall a particular event or interaction as the main point of reference in order to determine whether the recollections were experienced before.
The recollections of the memory is guided apparently by other factors such as great self relevance, unique feelings experienced, thoughts, goals or behaviors. AEM are the foundations of autonoetic consciousness because they are a recollections and mental re-enactment of past events experienced by an individual (Nadine & Markowitsch, 2007).
However, as described above, the past information is capable of undergoing reconsolidation and reshaping due to remembering of new situational context, making wishful fulfillments’ or other emotional forces triggered to add flavor to the event. Additionally, re-organization of information can occur when an individual is traumatized or undergoing very stressful condition.
This causes mental activities dissociations disorders where the patient memory is impaired. Such disorders are categorized in DSM-IV-TR to all disorders with symptoms of central inability to recall important personal knowledge after a traumatizing event resulting to psychogenic amnesia. The condition is augmented by the degree of stress resulting from the traumatizing event (Piolino et al., 2003b).
The conceptualization of AEM has been intensively revised over years. One characteristic of AEM is the mental time travelling on the subjective time in order to connect the past with the current memory status. The role of autonoetic consciousness to the phenomena of psychogenic amnesia is the impairment of autobiographical memory causing damaged autonoetic (self) awareness.
This makes a patient fail to retrieve an entity over time. Psychogenic amnesia patients are unable to connect to the old and new autonoetic memories. The dissociation is caused by traumatizing effects such as sexual assaults, domestic violence that may or may not cause head injury.
Apart from this, the patients display an inappropriate lack of concern about their symptoms; this is referred to as belle indifference. The patients are often unable to regulate their emotions or to engage them towards the environment.
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