Simulationism and the Function(s) of Episodic Memory

Abstract

According to simulationism, the function of episodic memory is not to remember the past, but to help construct representations of possible future episodes, by drawing together features from different experiential sources. This article suggests that the relationship between the traditional storehouse view, on which the function of memory is remembering, and the simulationist approach is more complicated than has been typically acknowledged. This is attributed, in part, to incorrect interpretations of what remembering on the storehouse view requires. Further, by appeal to function pluralism, the article questions both the assumption that the traditional view and simulationism are inconsistent, and the simulationist’s inference to the best explanation strategy that is based upon this assumption. The article then provides an evaluation of the simulationist argument against the traditional view, and finds it in need of further support.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    How to characterize episodic memory precisely is controversial. Roughly, episodic memories are those of particular experiences from one’s personal past (Cf. Robins 2018). This may suffice for a working definition. Ultimately, though, researchers want a characterization that can capture what sets episodic memory apart from “semantic,” or merely factual memory. The field is divided on the form a precise characterization should take (See part 2.)

  2. 2.

    Actually, perfect preservation of content from the representation deposited to the representation retrieved is not even sufficient for remembering, since the content of the representation deposited also has to have been accurate in the relevant respect(s) and to the relevant degree(s) to begin with (Schwartz 2018).

  3. 3.

    Perhaps, whether a subject counts as remembering semantically also exhibits a degree of context-sensitivity. For example, suppose Jones recalls (semantically) that, “Cape Verde is an island nation in the Atlantic Ocean,” but is unsure whether it is located in the Caribbean Sea or off the west coast of Africa. I take it that in some contexts, Jones may count as semantically remembering where Cape Verde is located, and in other contexts not, depending on whether the degree of precision that is relevant in the context requires distinguishing between the Caribbean and the mid-Atlantic.

  4. 4.

    A different option is to say that, in remembering, the contents of the representations deposited/retrieved should be determinate properties of the same contextually-relevant determinable property. As determinate properties, the contents of the representations deposited/retrieved may differ, so long as they are determinates of the same relevant determinable.

  5. 5.

    For historical overviews, see Squire (2009); and Squire and Wixted (2011). For the relation of this history to the knowledge-how/knowledge-that distinction, see Schwartz and Drayson (2019).

  6. 6.

    On one hand, “every ‘item’ in episodic memory represents information about the experienced occurrence of an episode or event,” (Tulving 1972, p. 387). On the other, “[i]f a person possesses some semantic memory information … he need not possess any mnemonic information about the episode of such learning,” (Ibid., p. 389).

  7. 7.

    Simulationists sometimes point to additional false memory effects. They are assigned the same argumentative work: to bolster the idea that episodic memory is often distorted. Here are some. The boundary extension effect occurs when a larger portion of a spatial scene is represented than had been perceived. The telescoping effect occurs when remote events are represented as more recent, and recent events are represented as more remote in time. Observer perspective memory occurs when a subject represents themselves in an event, as if seeing themselves from a third-person perspective. For discussion, see De Brigard (2014a, p. 159–162).

  8. 8.

    Perhaps, Michaelian (2016) may be read as uncommitted to the negative project. Moreover, Schacter and Addis (2007) might allow that episodic memory has multiple functions, (perhaps including remembering,) although simulation is presumably offered as the etiological function explaining “the origins” of constructive episodic memory.

  9. 9.

    According to De Brigard, “[t]his core brain network involves the hippocampus, the posterior cingulate/retrosplenial cortex, the inferior parietal lobe, the medial prefrontal cortex, and the lateral temporal cortex,” (p. 174).

  10. 10.

    If I read them correctly, Schacter and Addis, and De Brigard are in this camp.

  11. 11.

    There are important differences between the etiological accounts cited above. The discussion in the main text is modeled on Millikan’s approach. Her theory requires that only devices that are members of a “reproductive lineage,” or are produced by members of a reproductive lineage have functions. This restriction was included to avoid the counter-examples Boorse (1976) advanced against Wright’s account. (See Millikan 1989, p. 288.)

  12. 12.

    Richard Lewontin (1978) makes an allied point. “Every trait is involved in a variety of functions, and yet one would not want to say that the character is an adaptation for all of them. The green turtle Chelonia mydas is a large marine turtle of the tropical Pacific. Once a year the females drag themselves up the beach with their front flippers to the dry sand above the high water mark. There they spend many hours laboriously digging a deep hole for their eggs, using their hind flippers as trowels. No one who has watched this process would describe the turtle’s flippers as adaptations for land locomotion and digging; the animals move on land and dig with their flippers because nothing better is available,” (p. 218). Presumably, the turtle’s hind flippers have the etiological function of locomotion in water, but also the causal role to function as trowels.

  13. 13.

    In discussing principle R2, we’ve bracketed the issue that in giving an etiological account, it would be important not to simply assume that episodic memory is an adaption, for the reasons discussed by Lloyd (2015), and Gould and Lewontin (1979).

  14. 14.

    Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for pointing out this discussion in Suddendorf and Corballis (1997).

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Acknowledgments

For valuable help at various stages of this project, I am grateful to Zoe Drayson, Patrick Forber, Roberta Millstein, Bernard Molyneux, Sarah Robins, Adam Sennet, two anonymous referees, and to audiences at the Southern Society for Philosophy and Psychology (SSPP, 2019, Cincinnati), The International Society for the History, Philosophy and Social Studies of Biology (ISHPSSB 2019, Oslo, Norway,) Issues in Philosophy of Memory 2 (IPM2, Grenoble, France,) as well as the MENTaL discussion group and the Griesemer-Millstein PhilBio Lab at UC Davis.

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Schwartz, A. Simulationism and the Function(s) of Episodic Memory. Rev.Phil.Psych. 11, 487–505 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13164-020-00461-1

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