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Events, narratives and memory


Whether non-human animals can have episodic memories remains the subject of extensive debate. A number of prominent memory researchers defend the view that animals do not have the same kind of episodic memory as humans do, whereas others argue that some animals have episodic-like memory—i.e., they can remember what, where and when an event happened. Defining what constitutes episodic memory has proven to be difficult. In this paper, I propose a dual systems account and provide evidence for a distinction between event memory and episodic memory. Event memory is a perceptual system that evolved to support adaptive short-term goal processing, whereas episodic memory is based on narratives, which bind event memories into a retrievable whole that is temporally and causally organized around subject’s goals. I argue that carefully distinguishing event memory from episodic memory can help resolve the debate.

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Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    A recent exception is Rubin and Umanath’s (2015) distinction between event memory, which is based on construction of a scene, and episodic memory, which is defined as a type of event memory accompanied by a sense of reliving involving the self.

  2. 2.

    This does not mean that all distortions of memory are emotional at their basis. Memory distortions encompass a wide range of phenomena such as misattribution—i.e., cases where even though some form of memory is present, it is attributed to a wrong time, place or person—and suggestibility—i.e., the tendency to incorporate information provided by others (e.g. due to misleading questions) into one’s own recollections (Schacter 1999). Rather the focus is here on one important and pervasive class of distortion that is related to narrative construction.

  3. 3.

    Even though narrative capacities are closely related to linguistic capacities in humans, a narrative need not be based on language. Silent movies, picture books, comic strips are all examples of non-linguistic narratives. Testing narrative skills need not require linguistic skills either. Picture sequencing or re-enactment tasks are used to test narrative skills of young children.


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I would like to thank John Doris, Carl Craver, Daniel Povinelli, Kate Shrumm and Caroline Stone for their comments and suggestions on the earlier versions of this paper.

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Keven, N. Events, narratives and memory. Synthese 193, 2497–2517 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-015-0862-6

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  • Episodic memory
  • Episodic-like
  • Uniqueness debate
  • Mental time travel
  • Animal cognition
  • Event segmentation