8 November 2010

Evolution and function of autobiographical narratives

Narratives based on personal experiences are one of the most widespread cultural, cognitive and linguistic resources used to construct, communicate, and transform autobiographical memories (Pasupathi, 2001; Skowronski & Walker, 2004). Autobiographical narratives must be considered as verbal elaborations based on conscious remembrances of self-experience (Schmidt, 2008). They also play a crucial role in social interactions (Pasupathi 2003; Pasupathi, Weeks & Rice, 2006). People usually use their past experiences in order to both begin and cement new human relationships, talking about their past to show who they are and to accomplish their goals. Autobiographical memories in narrative forms are also utilized to create a feeling of connection and intimacy with partners (Pasupathi, 2003). The next sub-sections provide a brief review of evolutionary, functional as well as structural approaches to narrative research.

In evolutionary terms, the language capacity (linguistic and motor) to form narratives is a skill closely related to the formation of large social groups and cultural complexes (Donald, 1991). In everyday uses narrative capacities were fully developed in the Upper Paleolithic age. They emerged as social products by playing a key role in the creation of myths which support the coherence and cohesion of the community. Donald (1991) claims that narrative skill is the basic driving force behind language use, particularly speech, due to the fact that it is essential to describe and define events and objects.

In the community, shared narrative skills create the conditions for the construction of a collective version of reality. In developmental terms, narrative skills play a central role in the emergence of autobiographical memory capacities which are developed during the later part of preschool years (Fives & Nelson, 2004; Nelson, 2003b; Nelson & Fivush, 2004; Reese, Haden & Fivush, 1993). This process has been previously underpinned by parents or caregivers when their children were around 3 ½ years of age. Nelson and Fivush (2004) argue that during this period of early childhood is when adults generally start to talk with children about their memories. These authors (Nelson, 2003a; Nelson & Fivush, 2004) maintain that the ways in which adults talk about past experiences with their children directly influence the nature of the children’s autobiographical narratives in the future. The emergence of autobiographical memories generates the grounds for the creation of a self-history which is unique to the self and distinct from self-histories of others (Nelson, 2003b).

The meaning-function of autobiographical narratives (Bruner, 1990, 2008; Gergen, 1998) rests upon the fact that they normally operate by attempting to understand life-events as systematically related. Thus, narrative order in terms of causal and coherent interconnected sequences of episodes, events and actions must be fundamental at the time of giving life a sense of meaning and direction.

Narrative schemata (Bruner 1990; Schmidt, 2008; Wertsch, 2002) are the most natural cultural resources for constructing autobiographical narratives. These schemata should be thought of as by-products of cultural models (Kronenfeld, 2008; Shore, 1996). Hence, semantic and episodic memories are highly intertwined in autobiographical narratives, creating an action-oriented socio-cultural self (Nelson, 2003b). Narrative schemata have been acquired by individuals during their socialization (Schmidt, 2008) within specific cultural settings. They function by not only organizing and structuring the verbalization of remembrances, but also the order of the narrated events in individual’s minds, and, in doing so, can form a story which can be told and accepted by a possible audience (Schmidt 2008: 193).


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