Autobiographical Memory in a Fire-Walking Ritual

in Journal of Cognition and Culture
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Anthropological theories have discussed the effects of participation in high-arousal rituals in the formation of autobiographical memory; however, precise measurements for such effects 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 event 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 inaccurate memories and higher confidence. 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. Physiological measurements revealed a spectacular discrepancy between actual heart rates and self-reported arousal. This 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.

Autobiographical Memory in a Fire-Walking Ritual

in Journal of Cognition and Culture



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  • View in gallery
    The fijire-walking ritual. This fijigure is published in colour in the online edition of this journal, which can be accessed via
  • View in gallery
    Comparison between heart rate measurements (1, blue line) and selfreported arousal (2, green line). The fijirst time point includes the procession towards the venue, partly climbing a steep hill at a fast pace; the second time point includes dancing inside the venue and waiting for the fijire-walk; the third time point refers to the time of the individual fijire-walks; and the fourth time point is approximately 10 minutes after each fijire-walk. Note that results have been normalized, as fijire-walking was performed serially by participants (one by one), while for the rest of the ceremony participants acted in parallel. Thus, the continuous lines are provided for visual purposes only, as they do not represent the actual fluctuations between time points, which represent mean numbers. This fijigure is published in colour in the online edition of this journal, which can be accessed via content/15685373.
  • View in gallery
    Number of facts recalled from structured recall reports at t1 and t2 classifijied as to the accuracy and confijidence with which they were stated. This fijigure is published in colour in the online edition of this journal, which can be accessed via

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