What is episodic memory if it is a natural kind?
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Colloquially, episodic memory is described as “the memory of personally experienced events”. Even though episodic memory has been studied in psychology and neuroscience for about six decades, there is still great uncertainty as to what episodic memory is. Here we ask how episodic memory should be characterized in order to be validated as a natural kind. We propose to conceive of episodic memory as a knowledge-like state that is identified with an experientially based mnemonic representation of an episode that allows for a mnemonic simulation thereof. We call our analysis the Sequence Analysis of Episodic Memory since episodes will be analyzed in terms of sequences of events. Our philosophical analysis of episodic memory is driven and supported by experimental results from psychology and neuroscience. We discuss selected experimental results that provide exemplary evidence for uniform causal mechanisms underlying the properties of episodic memory and argue that episodic memory is a natural kind. The argumentation proceeds along three cornerstones: First, psychological evidence suggests that a violation of any of the proposed conditions for episodic memory amounts to a deficiency of episodic memory and no form of memory or cognitive process but episodic memory fulfills them. Second, empirical results support a claim that the principal anatomical substrate of episodic memory is the hippocampus. Finally, we can pin down causal mechanisms onto neural activities in the hippocampus to explain the psychological states and processes constituting episodic memory.
KeywordsEvents Neural sequences Replay Mental time travel Memory trace Mnemonic simulation
We thank Thomas Suddendorf for helpful discussions and Kevin Reuter for comments on the manuscript. This work was supported by a Grant (SFB 874, project B2) from the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, DFG) and a Grant from the Stiftung Mercator.
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