Behavioral and Brain Sciences
Commentary on Mahr and Csibra: Carving Event and Episodic Memory at Their Joints
Full Title: Commentary on Mahr and Csibra: Carving Event and Episodic Memory at Their Joints
Short Title: Carving Event and Episodic Memory at Their Joints
Article Type: Commentary Article
Corresponding Author: Nazim Keven, Ph.D
Corresponding Author Secondary
Corresponding Author's Institution: Bilkent University
Corresponding Author's Secondary
First Author: Nazim Keven, Ph.D
First Author Secondary Information:
Order of Authors: Nazim Keven, Ph.D
Order of Authors Secondary Information:
Abstract: Mahr and Csibra argue that event and episodic memories share the same scenario
construction process. I think this way of carving up the distinction throws the baby out
with the bathwater. If there is a substantive difference between event and episodic
memory, it is based on a difference in the construction process and how they are
Powered by Editorial Manager® and ProduXion Manager® from Aries Systems Corporation
Commentary on Mahr and Csibra
Main Text: 963
Entire Text: 1340
Carving Event and Episodic Memory at Their Joints
Department of Philosophy, Bilkent University
Full institutional mailing address:
Department of Philosophy
Phone: +90 533 4681092
Abstract: Mahr and Csibra argue that event and episodic memories share the same scenario
construction process. I think this way of carving up the distinction throws the baby out with the
bathwater. If there is a substantive difference between event and episodic memory, it is based on a
difference in the construction process and how they are organized respectively.
In the target article, Mahr and Csibra challenge overly cognitive accounts of episodic memory
based on the mental time travel metaphor. Instead, they offer a social-cognitive function of episodic
memory in terms of an epistemic attitude that signals testimonial authority in human
communications. I applaud the proposed shift in focus towards the social-cognitive functions of
episodic memory and I suspect that Mahr & Csibra's suggestion may not be the only function of
episodic memory in the social domain.
Commentary Article Click here to download Commentary Article Mahr Csibra Com
Mahr and Csibra also propose a distinction between event and episodic memory. As they mention,
and as I have argued else where (Keven 2016), the distinction has the potential to resolve the long
lasting debate about whether episodic memory is a uniquely human capacity. If the distinction is
proven to be robust, we can understand the mnemonic abilities of young children and non-human
animals with event memory without ascribing them a capacity for full-blown episodic memory.
However, it is not clear how to distinguish event and episodic memory at this stage. Mahr and
Csibra suggest that event and episodic memory share the same scenario construction process,
whereas I think the type of construction involved in episodic memory is different in kind from that
of event memory.
We can distinguish at least four different types of organization that could be utilized in memory
1. Spatial Organization: We perceive the world in a spatially organized way and can recall our
experiences as such.
2. Temporal Organization: Experiences occur sequentially in time such as before or after
another event. When we reconstruct an experience from memory, the events should occur in their
proper place in the sequence.
3. Causal Organization: Events can be distant in time and yet can have causal connections
with each other. I remember that I missed my bus to Istanbul because my alarm didn’t ring. Missing
the bus and the malfunctioning alarm clock are two temporally distant events that are causally
connected in my memory reconstruction.
4. Teleological Organization: Temporally distant and causally disparate events can still be
connected with each other based on goals. For instance, I remember that I was going to give a talk
when I missed the bus, so I took a plane instead to get there in time. Although giving a talk is
temporally distant and causally disparate from the malfunctioning alarm clock and missing the bus,
it is still connected to them in my memory as my goal at the time.
In Mahr and Csibra’s view, both event and episodic memory involve construction of a scenario that
involves simulation of events that are extended in time and space. It is not clear whether these
simulations involve all of these four types of organization. If they want to maintain that young
children and other non-human animals have event memories, however, then there has to be some
differences in the construction of event and episodic memories. Even though there is some evidence
that nonhuman animals can be sensitive to temporal information (e.g. Clayton and Dickinson 1998;
Babb and Crystal 2006), it is far from clear whether this amounts to an ability to temporally
sequence events into before/after relations (McCormack and Hoerl 2011; Roberts and Feeney
2009). Moreover, causal understanding of our primate cousins is very limited and no nonhuman
animals seem to understand the behavior of others in terms of goals (Povinelli 2000; Penn and
Povinelli 2007; Penn et al. 2008; Visalberghi and Tomasello 1998; Tomasello et al. 2005). Similarly,
young children show less temporal sequence knowledge and omit causal relations between events in
their recall of novel experiences; and, their memory representations are not organized around goals
to the same extent as are older children’s and adults (e.g. Price and Goodman 1990; Ratner et al.
1986). So, it is unlikely that event memories in young children and nonhuman animals can involve
temporal, causal and teleological organization.
In my previous work (Keven 2016), I provided evidence and argued to carve up event and episodic
memory in a different way. According to the dual systems thesis that I proposed, event memory is a
snapshot like memory system based on perceptual processes predominantly in the form of visual
images. These perceptually grounded representations are highly accurate but short-lived. Construed
as such, event memories only involve spatial organization. Any other type of organization is not
necessary in this case as there are no series of events that are extended in space and time.
On the other hand, construction of episodic memories requires a higher order inferential process.
Episodes generally consist of a series of events that are extended across different times and places.
When I remember the missing-the-bus episode, I don’t remember all the minute details involved in
the actual experience, I only remember the causally and teleologically relevant ones in the right
temporal order. In order to connect such a series of events, the construction process needs to sort the
events into cause/effect and goal/attempt/outcome relations besides keeping track of each scenes’
spatial structure and the events’ temporal order. Organizing memories in this way requires making
higher order inferences on the relations between events from memory as these relations are not
directly observable. According to the dual systems thesis, this inferential process is closely tied to
our storytelling capacity and narrative has nearly all the organizational components one would
expect. Reconstructing a narrative version of the experience provides the required temporal, causal
and teleological organization. As such, episodic memories are low in accuracy but can span longer
timescales and are more memorable.
To sum up, when we consider different types of organization that can be utilized in memory
reconstructions, construction of event and episodic memories differ in kind. In particular, the
construction of episodic memories require a higher order inferential process, which is unlikely to be
found in event memories.
Babb, S. J., & Crystal, J. D. (2006). Episodic-like memory in the rat. Current Biology, 16(13),
Clayton, N. S., & Dickinson, A. (1998). Episodic-like memory during cache recovery by scrub jays.
Nature, 395(6699), 272–274.
Keven, N. (2016). Events, Narratives and Memory. Synthese, 193(8), 2497–2517.
McCormack, T., & Hoerl, C. (2011). Tool use, planning and future thinking in children and animals.
In T. McCormack, C. Hoerl, & S. Butterfill (Eds.), Tool use and causal cognition (p. 129). Oxford:
Oxford University Press.
Penn, D. C., & Povinelli, D. J. (2007). Causal cognition in human and nonhuman animals: A
comparative, critical review. Annual Review of Psychology, 58(1), 97–118.
Penn, D. C., Holyoak, K. J., & Povinelli, D. J. (2008). Darwin’s mistake: Explaining the
discontinuity between human and nonhuman minds. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 31(02), 109–
Povinelli, D. J. (2000). Folk physics for apes: The chimpanzee’s theory of how the world works.
Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Price, D. W. W., & Goodman, G. S. (1990). Visiting the wizard: Children’s memory for a recurring
event. Child Development, 61(3), 664–680.
Ratner, H. H., Smith, B. S., & Dion, S. A. (1986). Development of memory for events. Journal of
Experimental Child Psychology, 41(3), 411–428.
Roberts, W. A., & Feeney, M. C. (2009). The comparative study of mental time travel. Trends in
Cognitive Sciences, 13(6), 271–277.
Tomasello, M., Carpenter, M., Call, J., Behne, T., & Moll, H. (2005). Understanding and sharing
intentions: The origins of cultural cognition. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 28(05), 675–691.
Visalberghi, E., & Tomasello, M. (1998). Primate causal understanding in the physical and
psychological domains. Behavioural Processes, 42(2–3), 189–203.