, Volume 31, Issue 5, pp 761-774

The contribution of autobiographical significance to semantic memory


We examined the importance of autobiographical significance (AS) in the representation and organization of semantic memory by examining which famous people are most likely to be associated with specific personal memories and whether or not this AS can be distinguished from other factors, such as familiarity. Norming studies with 45-to 55-year-old and 65-to 80-year-old participants suggested that AS is distinct from familiarity and that it interacts closely with emotional salience. Furthermore, in a set of experiments, we tested the hypothesis that AS is an important organizing principle in long-term episodic and semantic memory by contrasting performances on tests of recall, recognition, fame judgment, and speeded reading for famous names judged to be of either high or low personal relevance. Participants demonstrated a performance advantage (i.e., enhanced memory and faster responding) for autobiographically significant famous names, regardless of whether their own judgments or others’ judgments were used to classify the names. The implications of these findings for models of semantic memory are discussed.

This work was funded by Medical Research Council Grant MA-6694 to M.M. and a Canadian Institutes of Health Research Doctoral Scholarship to R.W.