Memory & Cognition

, Volume 47, Issue 1, pp 117–129 | Cite as

Visual attentional load affects the frequency of involuntary autobiographical memories and their level of meta-awareness

  • Manila VannucciEmail author
  • Claudia Pelagatti
  • Maciej Hanczakowski
  • Carlo Chiorri


Involuntary autobiographical memories (IAMs) are memories of past events that come to mind without deliberate retrieval attempts. Common in everyday life, IAMs have recently become a topic of experimental investigations with laboratory procedures. In the present study, we build on the recent methodological advancements in the study of IAMs, and we investigate the effects of manipulating the attentional load on the incidence of IAMs, as well as on the level of meta-awareness of these memories. In two experiments, attentional load was manipulated by varying the demands of the focal vigilance task, and reports of IAMs were collected. In Experiment 1, participants were instructed to stop the vigilance task whenever mental contents unrelated to the task came to their minds (self-caught method). In Experiment 2, participants were intermittently interrupted and probed regarding the contents of their experience (probe-caught method) and the level of meta-awareness for these contents. In both experiments, we found a reduction in the frequency of reported IAMs under increased attentional load. Moreover, in Experiment 2, IAMs were characterized by varied levels of meta-awareness, which was reduced by increased attentional load. These results indicate that allocation of attentional resources toward a focal task reduces reporting of IAMs experienced while performing this task because attentional resources play a role in both retrieval of IAMs and the realization that one is experiencing a memory.


Involuntary autobiographical memories Autobiographical memory Meta-awareness Attentional load 



The authors would like to thank Dr. Bruno Bocanegra for helpful and thoughtful discussions and advice on the design of Experiment 1. We also would like to thank Martina Fioravanti for her help with data collection.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

All the authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

All procedures performed in the study are in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Informed consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.


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Copyright information

© The Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Manila Vannucci
    • 1
    Email author
  • Claudia Pelagatti
    • 1
  • Maciej Hanczakowski
    • 2
  • Carlo Chiorri
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of NEUROFARBA–Section of PsychologyUniversity of FlorenceFlorenceItaly
  2. 2.SWPS University of Social Sciences and HumanitiesWarsawPoland
  3. 3.Department of Educational SciencesUniversity of GenoaGenoaItaly

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