Make or break it: boundary conditions for integrating multiple elements in episodic memory

R Soc Open Sci. 2020 Sep 16;7(9):200431. doi: 10.1098/rsos.200431. eCollection 2020 Sep.


Event memories are characterized by the holistic retrieval of their constituent elements. Studies show that memory for individual event elements (e.g. person, object and location) are statistically related to each other, and that the same associative memory structure can be formed by learning all pairwise associations across separated encoding contexts (person-object, person-location, object-location). Counter to previous studies that have shown no differences in holistic retrieval between simultaneously and separately encoded event elements, adults did not show evidence of holistic retrieval from separately encoded event elements when using a similar paradigm adapted for children (Experiment 1). We conducted a further five online experiments to explore the conditions under which holistic retrieval emerges following separated encoding of within-event associations, testing for influences of trial length (Experiment 2), the number of events learned (Experiment 3a) and stimulus presentation format (Experiments 3b, 4a, 4b). Presentation of written words was optimal for integrating elements across encoding trials, whereas the addition of spoken words disrupted integration across separately presented associations. The use of picture stimuli also produced effect sizes smaller than those of previously published research. We discuss the ways in which memory integration processes may be disrupted by these differences in presentation format. The findings have practical implications for the utility of this paradigm across research and learning contexts.

Keywords: episodic memory; memory; memory integration.