The when and what of episodic encoding

Aya Ben-Yaakov

Research Fellow at MRC Cognition and Brain Science Unit,

University of Cambridge

National Research University – Higher School of Economics

In striving for experimental control, studies of human episodic memory have focused mainly on encoding of brief, stationary events. Such events, while providing a high degree of control, bear little resemblance to real-life memory and constrain the questions that can be asked. I will demonstrate how use of naturalistic stimuli enables us to address previously unaskable questions, discussing a set of fMRI studies in which we asked when episodic memories are formed. Using film clips as a proxy for real-life memory, we found that hippocampal activity time-locked to the offset of events, but not their onset or duration, is linked to subsequent memory. In a subsequent study we analysed brain activity of over 200 participants who viewed a naturalistic film and found that the hippocampus responded both reliably and specifically to shifts between scenes. Taken together, these results suggest that during encoding of a continuous experience, event boundaries drive hippocampal processing, potentially reflecting the encoding of bound representations to long-term memory. I will discuss how this surprising finding opened a new avenue of research, asking what is encoded in episodic encoding – is each element encoded independently, or is the entire episode encoded as a cohesive unit?


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