Take a minute to think about the following question. Who are you?
In trying to come up with an answer, you most likely have relied on knowledge about your past experiences. You might have thought about where you grew up, where you went to school or university, your current career, or your particular interests and hobbies. Most of these memories are autobiographical.
Autobiographical memory is a memory system by which we recollect our personal experiences. According to CON AMORE, a research centre established to study the topic at hand, “autobiographical memory is a neurocognitive (brain/mind) system for consciously recollecting events in the personal past, by combining and extending more basic systems in constructing mental representations of personal events”. Taking an evolutionary perspective, researchers in the field perceive autobiographical memory as an important development for the capability to partake in social spheres.
Professor Dorthe Berntsen is a pioneer in the field of autobiographical memory research and is currently the director of CON AMORE which she has headed since its establishment in 2010, after she was granted a Centre of Excellence grant from the Danish National Research Foundation to study autobiographical memory. The work of the Centre is structured along five main areas: basic mechanisms and characteristics of involuntary (versus voluntary) autobiographical memories; Life span development of autobiographical memory, from childhood to old age; Involuntary memories of past events in non-human animals; Key structures in the organization of autobiographical knowledge and the intersection between culture and autobiographical memory; and autobiographical memory in mental disorders.
Aside from her work as the director Director of CON AMORE and engaging directly in the research, Prof Berntsen is also a Professor at the Department of Psychology and Behavioural Sciences in Aarhus University, Denmark. Moreover, she has authored many influential books and articles in the field of memory research, some of which can be found here.
After being awarded the Aristotle Prize 2017 from the European Federation of Psychologists’ Associations (EFPA) on behalf of CON AMORE, at the European Congress of Psychology 2017, Professor Dorthe Berntsen has delighted us with an interview which we are very excited to be presenting to you. Why autobiographical memory research? What is CON AMORE all about? Find out below!
Tell us a bit about your background. How did you get into the field? What was your initial intention for working in field and did this change throughout your career?
I published my first study on involuntary autobiographical memories in 1996 at a time when virtually no studies of this phenomenon existed in non-clinical populations. I undertook this study as a Ph.D. student. My way into it was somewhat accidental. I had a long-standing interest for literature, notably poetic metaphors and how they were created. Yet, my Ph.D. mentor encouraged me to think of something that was more “clearly psychological”. Otherwise I might not qualify for a fellowship. I decided that autobiographical memory fulfilled the criterion of being clearly psychological, and I stumbled over a phenomenon that caught my interest. And that phenomenon was involuntary autobiographical memories, which are memories that come to mind spontaneously with no preceding attempts of retrieval.
The most important findings from this early research was that involuntary autobiographical memories are an everyday memory phenomenon and that they are generally positive. In the great majority of cases, the memories have identifiable cues in the retrieval context. They are more specific than voluntary (deliberately retrieved) memories and tend to come with more emotional impact and reaction, although their emotional content does not differ from the one of voluntary memories.
The findings contradicted the then dominant view in clinical psychology that involuntary memories are typically about stressful/negative events as well as the dominant view among cognitive psychologists that episodic remembering requires high levels of executive functions.
You are currently the Director of CON AMORE. What was your initial motivation to take on this position and how has your experience been thus far?
My experience as leader of CON AMORE has been very positive. My initial motivation was to achieve funding for research projects, not so much to become a center leader. However, I have also enjoyed the leadership part. Both professionally and socially, being the director of CON AMORE has been a very good experience.
Can you tell us a bit about the name of the Centre – CON AMORE?
CON AMORE stands for Center on Autobiographical Memory Research. CON AMORE is an expression used in Danish academia to indicate something you do based on sheer interest and joy (and not for monetary gains, for example). You do it “with love” so to speak.
CON AMORE has been deemed a Centre of Excellence; what are some of the peak moments of the Centre? What were some of challenges faced by your team?
CON AMORE is funded by the Danish National research Foundation (DNRF) as a Center of Excellence, which is their primary funding mechanism. The DNRF provides this funding for maximally 10 years, in our case from 2010-2019 with a total grant of 84 mill DKK. The greatest peak moment was to receive this generous grant in 2010. Other peak moments were to develop new experimental paradigms, see them work, and have new insights. In addition to conducting research projects, we have hosted seven international conferences with the goal of integrating different perspectives on the study of autobiographical memory. We have an upcoming conference on ‘autobiographical memory and the self’ in 2018, which we are looking much forward to.
If CON AMORE could work on any research question with no limitations what would it be and why?
We have, and have had, a lot of freedom to define our own research, so I do not think we would like to change what we have done. However, one very intriguing area to me personally is autobiographical memory in non-human animals. How do animals remember their personal past? We have done some research on event memories in apes, but it would be interesting to know more about what goes on in the head of animals; do they also have spontaneous memories of events in their past? Our most important limitation right now is the fact that our DNRF funding ends by 2020. That is a major challenge approaching us, and right now the most pressing question is how to secure new funding to continue our research and the research environment we have built up over these years.
What advice do you have for students of psychology/young researchers or practitioners?
Always remember that what really matters is scientific progress and not (and certainly not primarily) personal success here and now. It may be especially helpful to remember this when times are hard and your papers and grants perhaps are rejected. It is difficult to make it in academia right now for junior scientists, because of strong competition for (too) few permanent positions at the universities. Still, it is important to believe in your own ideas and not compromise quality.