Episodic memory in nonhuman animals

Curr Biol. 2013 Sep 9;23(17):R801-6. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2013.07.016.


Episodic memories differ from other types of memory because they represent aspects of the past not present in other memories, such as the time, place, or social context in which the memories were formed. Focus on phenomenal experience in human memory, such as the sense of 'having been there', has resulted in conceptualizations of episodic memory that are difficult or impossible to apply to nonhuman species. It is therefore a significant challenge for investigators to agree on objective behavioral criteria that can be applied in nonhuman animals and still capture features of memory thought to be critical in humans. Some investigators have attempted to use neurobiological parallels to bridge this gap; however, defining memory types on the basis of the brain structures involved rather than on identified cognitive mechanisms risks missing crucial functional aspects of episodic memory, which are ultimately behavioral. The most productive way forward is likely a combination of neurobiology and sophisticated cognitive testing that identifies the mental representations present in episodic memory. Investigators that have refined their approach from asking the naïve question "do nonhuman animals have episodic memory" to instead asking "what aspects of episodic memory are shared by humans and nonhumans" are making progress.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Behavior, Animal
  • Cognition
  • Memory*