Autobiographical Memory in a Fire-Walking Ritual

Dimitris Xygalatas, Uffe Schjødt, Joseph Bulbulia, Ivana Konvalinka, Else-Marie Elmholdt Jegindø, Andreas Roepstorff, Paul Reddish, Armin W. Geertz

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Anthropological theories have discussed the effects of participation in high-arousal rituals in the formation of autobiographical memory, proposing that such events produce rich episodic memories. Precise measurements for such effects, however, are lacking. In this study, we examined episodic recall among participants in a highly arousing fire-walking ritual. To assess arousal, we used heart rate measurements. To assess the dynamics of episodic memories, we obtained reports immediately after the fire-walk and two months later. We evaluated memory accuracy from video footage. Immediately after the event, participants’ reports revealed limited recall, low confidence, and high accuracy. Two months later we found more memories, higher confidence, and more errors. Whereas cognitive theories of ritual have predicted flashbulb memories for highly arousing rituals, we found that memories were strongly suppressed immediately after the event and only later evolved confidence and detail. The dissociation between subjective reports and objective measurements of arousal is consistent with a cognitive resource depletion model. We argue that expressive suppression may provide a link between individual memories and cultural understandings of high-arousal rituals.
Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Cognition and Culture
Pages (from-to)1-16
Number of pages16
Publication statusPublished - 2013


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