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Building blocks of episodic memory: Insight from typical and atypical development

In an interview, author Haruki Murakami eloquently describes the role that memory plays in his own writing: "When I write about a 15-year-old, I jump, I return to the days when I was that age. It's like a time machine. I can remember everything. I can feel the wind. I can smell the air. Very actually. Very vividly." Murakami captures the defining feature of episodic memory, the capacity to remember specific events along with contextual details, which gives rise to a sense of subjective vividness of things past. Episodic memory is a fundamental faculty that supports mundane yet crucial abilities such as finding one's keys or one's way home, as well as more complex functions such as knowledge acquisition (De Haan, in press), the development of autobiographical memory (Nelson & Fivush, 2004) and continuity of self (Buckner & Carroll, 2007). Given the centrality of episodic memory for the human experience, it is not surprising that scientists and philosophers have been long fascinated with questions such as: How do we remember our past in such detail? How do we represent events in space and time? What function is served by the subjective feeling of vividness evoked by recollecting the past?

These questions have also motivated my own research, which focuses on the development of episodic memory in childhood. One might assume that by the time children reach school age, their experience of the world depends on episodic memory as much as that of adults--children constantly surprise their parents with recollections of minute details about their daily lives--but, in reality, a great deal of change in memory functioning occurs during childhood. How do we explain this change?

We now know that at least two classes of processes support adult episodic memory. Binding Processes allow us create, store, and later reinstate representations ("bound" representations) that integrate information about an event with the constellation of contextual features surrounding it. Controlled processes allow us to initiate operations, such as strategies and assessments of current mental states, that guide the formation and retrieval of bound representations. The prevailing view is that binding processes develop early, and memory development in childhood is driven entirely by changes in controlled processes. However, my research on both typical and atypical development suggests that the alternative view, that binding processes also continue to develop, has been prematurely dismissed. Understanding developmental changes in these processes is crucial for a comprehensive theory of episodic memory.

My research aims to: (1) elucidate the development of episodic memory by teasing apart the contributions of binding and controlled processes during childhood; (2) examine whether these processes can be enhanced through training interventions; and (3) understand how the disruption of these processes (e.g., in neurologically impaired populations) alters their developmental trajectory. In light of these goals, I will review some of the key behavioral and neuroscientific research that has led to our current understanding of the building blocks of episodic memory, identify critical questions that remain, and propose new approaches to address them.