Narration and autobiographical memory

Narration is something we often do automatically to make sense in our own life, endless and meaningless events. We try to add the meaning that is not always there, to begin with, but is there when we are finished. We basically connect the dots, so that we can navigate the reality and modify the plot lines as we understand the world around us differently.

How good is autobiographical memory?

Typically autobiographical memory is considered as one of the strongest memory types. For an average person everything that happened to him is more important and interesting than anything else. (My personal autobiographical memory is rather weak, but this is not interesting in the context of this article).

Some extraordinary people have a perfect autobiographical recall, and they can play their lives as a movie from some key point event. Most of us do not have this ability and instead have some distorted snapshots of key events, like short gif animations for our lives. These key events do not necessarily add up to something meaningful, so we add some narration to connect these events.

Logical and creative parts

Typically to remember something we combine logical and creative elements. We do the same in our own lives. The murky videos or flashbulb images of our lives tend to be detailed and creative. Since we remember our last recall rather than the original events, some details we see are added during later recalls. Typically we add details that make sense in the narrative we consider.

The narrator tends to be very logical, following some very reasonable and causal order of events. If our life is chaotic we often add some external power to introduce some order, and god willing everything makes sense again. In many ways, our inner narrator is unreliable since we try to settle the conflicts and fill in the holes when we have very limited knowledge.

Our autobiographical memories are unreliable

It can be quite unpleasant to realize that both our inner narration of events and the visuals of past experiences are unreliable. After all, our own experiences define us more than anything else. If we cannot trust these experiences, there is nothing we can truly trust. Decart’s “cogito ergo sum” is not entirely valid anymore.

For example, when we watch a magic trick,  we see what the magician wants us to see. We create a narrative. Then we see magic and remember magic because the true mechanics are hidden. Once we see the actual backstage mechanics of magic tricks, we understand that the trickery was very blunt, simple, and prosaic. Some people choose to trust their senses and believe in all sorts of spiritualism. Others, trust their common sense and understand that they have been tricked and might never understand what actually happened.

Unlike magical tricks, we do not necessarily perceive our own narration as a possible illusion. Simply put, our senses are the way we learn reality, and when our senses lie we do not really have a better alternative.

Using recording equipment

Like any memory, autobiographical memory can be trained. A possible method for training of autobiographical memory consists of recording everything and comparing the record with what we remember. Many recorders allow some AI functionality that compresses long recordings to meaningful events, and we can revisit those events.

If we are lazy, we can do this with movies. How many times do you have to see a movie to get a near-perfect recall? If you get a near-perfect recall on the first or second time you see a movie, try comparing the memories a day after.  If there is any level of complexity to the movie, we are likely to recall it passively watching the movie, and not actively telling the movie and a story and visualizing the scenes. 

Autobiographical memory usually assumes active recall: we do not actually relive the same experience every day – unless we live in “Groundhog Day” which is absurd. And the stuff we remember is very different from what we are likely to see in videos unless we train a lot.

Is there a way to improve the inner narrator?

There are many pieces of advice regarding the inner narrator, yet so far none work well enough.

  • Question everything. This is great if we have time and cross-validation methodology, but usually, we act automatically and without witnesses, so this will not work.
  • Trust yourself. We can say that the way we experience reality is the only thing we can really trust, even if imperfect. This clears uncertainty and enables fast decision-making which is critical for survival. Unfortunately, this is also a  great backdoor for magical thinking and other cognitive biases.
  • Apply common sense. Rather than trusting our own narrator, we can compare it with the laws of nature, rules presented by others, systematic descriptions of the world. Unfortunately, this perspective is both slow and narrow. We need to make a lot of judgment calls using rule systems that are imperfect.

For example, we have more than 20 senses, but until several years ago I used to think that we had just the big 5 senses. I simply discarded other senses as I was told that we have 5 senses as a kid. The 6th sense in this scenario would be supernatural, which is absurd. Consider vestibular apparatus as a sixth sense.

Positive thinking

While we cannot make the inner narrator fully reliable, we can train it to be helpful. Positive thinking psychology tries to address the negative tendencies of some inner narrators. There are several very simple rules:

  1. For every bad thought generate 3-5 good thoughts. If there are sequences of more than 10 thoughts, start generating negative thoughts as a balance.
  2. Divide narration into the aspects that are influenced by our actions and aspects we cannot control and hence need to accept.
  3. Nothing is fully bad or fully good. Any bad situation can be reframed as an opportunity. Binary black-and-white perception should be avoided.
  4. Conflicts and contradictions are unavoidable and do not necessarily require a solution. A good challenge can be wonderful.
  5. Focus on the experience itself, rather than on its effects and side effects. For example, when I travel, I often remember the weather,  or physical discomfort rather than the things I came to see. (Positive thinking is notoriously hard for me personally)

In fact, I have several courses on this subject ( and

Addressing cognitive biases

Cognitive biases are not unavoidable. We can correct our narration in hindsight. Usually, we add perspectives, like the backstage perspective of a magic show, or how some event was experienced by other participants and witnesses.

With some training, we can add tools. For example, we can ask to which extent our current understanding is influenced by the filter bubble of people with similar views. Or we can try to assess the chances of what we experienced actually happening. Rare events exist but are somewhat unlikely. Events breaking the rules of nature probably do not exist, and if we prove otherwise we deserve a Nobel prize.

I have a course about critical thinking too:

By the way, if you find my courses expensive write me [email protected] and ask for a discount. You are likely to get a huge discount. And this is another point. Our perception is contextual. When the context changes, the perception also changes. In this case, I always intend my students to use heavy discounts, so the full price reflects it.

Living = collecting experiences ?

Here I used a logical marker: two signs “=” and “?” to emphasize something I find important. There is a lot of hype regarding collecting experiences as the ultimate form of living. Yet experiences tend to be unreliable. Quite possibly we should use another measure. Stoics emphasized personal integrity and responsibility. Epicureans emphasized balance with nature and other people. Capitalists emphasize the creation of value and aggregation of assets. And so on. The list is long. We do not have to choose just one point of view, and we can definitely create our own perspectives.

In a nutshell, every life is worth living. With any kind of narration and visual sequence. Assuming otherwise can create dangerous outcomes, which should be avoided. And yet, some lives almost objectively appear to be better than others. For example, it is better to be rich and healthy than poor and sick. Wether this is true or yet another cognitive bias, I do not dare to decide.


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