The associative structure of memory for multi-element events

J Exp Psychol Gen. 2013 Nov;142(4):1370-83. doi: 10.1037/a0033626. Epub 2013 Aug 5.


The hippocampus is thought to be an associative memory "convergence zone," binding together the multimodal elements of an experienced event into a single engram. This predicts a degree of dependency between the retrieval of the different elements comprising an event. We present data from a series of studies designed to address this prediction. Participants vividly imagined a series of person-location-object events, and memory for these events was assessed across multiple trials of cued retrieval. Consistent with the prediction, a significant level of dependency was found between the retrieval of different elements from the same event. Furthermore, the level of dependency was sensitive both to retrieval task, with higher dependency during cued recall than cued recognition, and to subjective confidence. We propose a simple model, in which events are stored as multiple pairwise associations between individual event elements, and dependency is captured by a common factor that varies across events. This factor may relate to between-events modulation of the strength of encoding, or to a process of within-event "pattern completion" at retrieval. The model predicts the quantitative pattern of dependency in the data when changes in the level of guessing with retrieval task and confidence are taken into account. Thus, we find direct behavioral support for the idea that memory for complex multimodal events depends on the pairwise associations of their constituent elements and that retrieval of the various elements corresponding to the same event reflects a common factor that varies from event to event.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Association*
  • Cues
  • Female
  • Hippocampus / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Memory / physiology*
  • Mental Recall / physiology