Temple Infant & Child Laboratory | Memory Research
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Memory Research

Episodic Memory Overview


Episodic memory is a type of memory that allows us to remember specific events in the past, such as high school graduation and dinner with a friend last week. This type of memory appears to show of a lot of important changes over the course of early childhood. In our research, we seek to characterize the developmental nature of episodic memory in childhood by teasing apart the building blocks that make up this complex capacity.

On-Going Research


1. Relational Binding


Remembering a specific past event requires the ability to link different elements of the events together, such as the people we meet, the objects we encounter, and where the events take place. This ability may be the basis for forming complex autobiographical memories and using knowledge flexibly in new situations. Given the central role of binding in episodic memory, we have studied children’s abilities to bind items in memory, such as grouping objects, or the linkage between a person, an object, and the surround context. In general, children younger than 4 have difficulty with binding, which may contribute to their overall poor episodic memory. However, children’s ability to form relational or associative memories via binding seems to improve markedly during childhood.


In one study, we examined the development of episodic memory during a specific context. Children were shown different rooms, each of which had 4 boxes. Both of the rooms had the same set of boxes but differed in their organization. In each room, children watched an experimenter hide a toy under one of the 4 boxes. The location of the toy differed between the rooms. Later on, children were asked to retrieve the toy in each room, which required them to remember which toy was hidden in which location.

20-month-olds were able to associate a toy with the box that it was hidden underneath, which provides evidence that toddlers can bind objects with other objects. By age 3, children can begin to bind object-object association to a specific context, and this ability increases until age 5. For more details, see the linked paper below:


Newcombe, N. S., Balcomb, F., Ferrara, K., Hansen, M., & Koski, J. (2014). Two rooms, two representations? Episodic-like memory in toddlers and preschoolers. Developmental Science, 17(5), 743-756.


In two recent studies, we tested binding of object-object association to a specific spatial context using dynamic animations in 4- and 6-year-old children. Four-year-old children performed worse than 6-year-old children, whereas 6-year-olds were comparable to young adults. For more details, see the linked paper


Ngo, C. T.*, Lin, Y.*, Newcombe, N. S., & Olson, I. R. (in press). Building up and wearing down episodic memory: Mnemonic discrimination and relational binding. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.


2. Sleep-Filled Delay and Memory


In an on-going study, we are exploring the effects of sleep on memory consolidation in children. Children sleep a great deal more than adults, and while we know this is critical to children’s physical growth and development, we hope to uncover whether there are benefits of sleep to memory. This study investigates how well children can learn and remember events they encounter both before and after a night of sleep. We created animations for children to watch that mimics how they would encounter events in real life, and we then see which events children can correctly recall–both immediately after watching the animations in the lab, and then again, the following day at home. If you interested in participating in this study, please contact Susan Benear at susan.benear@temple.edu.


3. Pattern Separation



In two experiments, we examined the development of episodic memory – memory for specific events that happened in the past – in 4-year-old and 6-year-old children. We focused on two important aspects of episodic memory: (1) relational memory – how well children are able to remember multiple things that co-occur in specific spatiotemporal contexts; (2) pattern separation – how well children are able to discriminate between similar memories from each other. We found significant improvements in both relational memory and pattern separation between the ages of 4 and 6. Interestingly, 6-year-olds’ performances did not differ from those of adults. Furthermore, performances on relational memory and pattern separation did not relate to each other for any age group. These findings suggest that while relational memory and pattern separation follow a similar developmental profile, they may play distinct roles in episodic memory development. For more details, see linked papers below:


Ngo, C. T., Newcombe, N. S., & Olson, I. R. (2017). The ontogeny of relational memory and pattern separation. Developmental Science, 21(2), 10.1111/desc.12556.


Ngo, C. T.*, Lin, Y.*, Newcombe, N. S., & Olson, I. R. (in press). Building up and wearing down episodic memory: Mnemonic discrimination and relational binding. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

In another study, we asked whether young children (aged 4-5) could prioritize encoding items with high specificity in circumstances in which the details of past experiences would be advantageous for subsequent remembering. We found that motivating children to encode items with high specificity using a gain-loss framing indeed boosted preschoolers’ mnemonic discrimination. However, motivation did not abolish the robust age-related differences between preschoolers and their older counterparts (aged 6-8). Evidence from this research suggests that there is a degree of malleability in mnemonic discrimination in preschoolers, but the persistent age-related improvements are likely accounted for in part by neurobiological maturation of regions that instantiate pattern separation.


Ngo, C. T., Newcombe, N. S., & Olson, I. R. (in press). Gain-loss framing enhances mnemonic discrimination in preschoolers. Child Development.


4. Pattern Completion

Episodic memory binds together the diverse elements of an event into a coherent representation. This coherence allows for the reconstruction of different aspects of an experience when triggered by a cue related to a past event—a process of pattern completion. Such holistic recollection is evident in young adults, as shown by dependency in the retrieval success for various associations from the same event. In addition, episodic memory shows clear quantitative increases during early childhood. However, the ontogeny of holistic recollection is uncharted. Using dependency analyses, we found that 4-year-olds, 6-year-olds and young adults all retrieve complex events in a holistic manner, i.e., retrieval accuracy for one aspect of an event predicted accuracy for other aspects of the same event. However, the degree of holistic retrieval increased from age 4 to adulthood. Thus, extended refinement of multi-way binding may be one aspect of episodic memory development.


Ngo, C. T., Horner, A. J., Newcombe, N. S., & Olson, I. R. (in press). Development of holistic episodic recollection. Psychological Science.