Eavesdropping on Autobiographical Memory: A Naturalistic Observation Study of Older Adults’ Memory Sharing in Daily Conversations

Aubrey A. Wank, Matthias R. Mehl, Jessica R. Andrews-Hanna, Angelina J. Polsinelli, Suzanne Moseley, Elizabeth L. Glisky, Matthew D. Grilli

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Scopus citations


The retrieval of autobiographical memories is an integral part of everyday social interactions. Prior laboratory research has revealed that older age is associated with a reduction in the retrieval of autobiographical episodic memories, and the ability to elaborate these memories with episodic details. However, how age-related reductions in episodic specificity unfold in everyday social contexts remains largely unknown. Also, constraints of the laboratory-based approach have limited our understanding of how autobiographical semantic memory is linked to older age. To address these gaps in knowledge, we used a smartphone application known as the Electronically Activated Recorder, or “EAR,” to unobtrusively capture real-world conversations over 4 days. In a sample of 102 cognitively normal older adults, we extracted instances where memories and future thoughts were shared by the participants, and we scored the shared episodic memories and future thoughts for their make-up of episodic and semantic detail. We found that older age was associated with a reduction in real-world sharing of autobiographical episodic and semantic memories. We also found that older age was linked to less episodically and semantically detailed descriptions of autobiographical episodic memories. Frequency and level of detail of shared future thoughts yielded weaker relationships with age, which may be related to the low frequency of future thoughts in general. Similar to laboratory research, there was no correlation between autobiographical episodic detail sharing and a standard episodic memory test. However, in contrast to laboratory studies, episodic detail production while sharing autobiographical episodic memories was weakly related to episodic detail production while describing future events, unrelated to working memory, and not different between men and women. Overall, our findings provide novel evidence of how older age relates to episodic specificity when autobiographical memories are assessed unobtrusively and objectively “in the wild.”

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number238
JournalFrontiers in Human Neuroscience
StatePublished - Jun 26 2020


  • autobiographical memory
  • cognitive aging
  • episodic memory
  • episodic specificity
  • naturalistic observation
  • semantic memory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Neurology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Biological Psychiatry
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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