What is it about?

When a person is asked to think back over their recent experience, they can report a series of memories. Looking at the order in which these memories are remembered, we can see temporal structure: After recalling one event, the next event recalled often happened nearby in time to the first event. This phenomenon is called the temporal contiguity effect, and it is observed nearly any time a person freely recalls memories of their past experience. In this paper we show that this robust and reliable effect can be disrupted to the point where the retrieved memories have no observable temporal structure. Across a series of experiments, we show that temporal structure is severely disrupted after studying a long list of items, where a subset of items are highly related to one another (strong semantic structure) and these items are scattered throughout the list.

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Why is it important?

This work is meant to help us develop better theories of how the human mind embeds temporal (time-based) and semantic (meaning-based) structure into memories, and how this structure can be used to target specific memories to be retrieved.


I love the idea that we can infer the structure of memories by looking at how people perform on simple tasks where they search through their memory for the details of recent experiences. The temporal structure of memories is strong and reliable and is observed in nearly every study where we go looking for it. So to show how to disrupt that structure is important for our theory building. If we want to know how it works, it helps if we know how to break it!

Sean Polyn
Vanderbilt University

Read the Original

This page is a summary of: The modulation and elimination of temporal organization in free recall., Journal of Experimental Psychology Learning Memory and Cognition, December 2023, American Psychological Association (APA),
DOI: 10.1037/xlm0001311.
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