The influence of context boundaries on memory for the sequential order of events

J Exp Psychol Gen. 2013 Nov;142(4):1277-86. doi: 10.1037/a0034024. Epub 2013 Aug 19.


Episodic memory allows people to reexperience the past by recovering the sequences of events that characterize those prior experiences. Although experience is continuous, people are able to selectively retrieve and reexperience more discrete episodes from their past, raising the possibility that some elements become tightly related to each other in memory, whereas others do not. The current series of experiments was designed to ask how shifts in context during an experience influence how people remember the past. Specifically, we asked how context shifts influence the ability to remember the relative order of past events, a hallmark of episodic memory. We found that memory for the order of events was enhanced within, rather than across, context shifts, or boundaries (Experiment 1). Next, we showed that this relative enhancement in order memory was eliminated when across-item associative processing was disrupted (Experiment 2), suggesting that context shifts have a selective effect on sequential binding. Finally, we provide evidence that the act of making order memory judgments involves the reactivation of representations that bridged the tested items (Experiment 3). Together, these data suggest that boundaries may serve to parse continuous experience into sequences of contextually related events and that this organization facilitates remembering the temporal order of events that share the same context.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Discrimination, Psychological / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Memory / physiology*
  • Memory, Episodic*
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Reaction Time / physiology