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Episodic Memory and Referential Activity

Bernard Maskit, Wilma Bucci and Sean Murphy

The concept of referential activity bears a strong conceptual relationship to episodic memory (EM), which has been defined as memory for personal events that are set in a specific time and place and experienced with contextual details, in a particular state of consciousness involving awareness of the self as a continuous entity across time (Tulving, 2002; Gardiner, 2002). In Tulving’s terms, episodic memory “makes possible mental time travel through subjective time, from the present to the past, thus allowing one to re-experience, through autonoetic awareness, one’s own previous experiences” (pg. 5). The term “autonoetic awareness” refers to the idea that episodic memory is a mental re-enactment of the time of the event rather than a mere recollection.

Referential activity (RA) is defined as activity of the system of connections between language, which consists of discrete symbolic forms, and subsymbolic information, which includes continuously changing sensory, bodily, affective and imagistic experience (Bucci, 1997). According to the theory underlying RA, detailed descriptions of images and events constitute a primary means by which subsymbolic experience can be connected to language. When a speaker experiences an event in the moment of telling it, she activates associated bodily and sensory experience (in at least trace form). According to the theory, the language she uses in connection with these experiences will tend to be more concrete, specific, clear and imagistic. (Bucci, 1997, 2011).

Episodic memory is distinguished from semantic memory, which involves general knowledge about the world and oneself. One might know as facts in semantic memory that the Centre Pompidou is a museum in Paris and that one has visited the museum several times. As an episodic memory, one might relive one’s first sight of the Centre Pompidou walking to it on a rainy spring afternoon from the Metro station through the streets near Les Halles. According to Bucci’s theory (1997), when telling about one’s first sight of the Centre Pompdiou, the smell of the rain, the dampness of the air, the sounds and lights of the Metro station and the full array of subsymbolic sensory and somatic experiences associated with the event would be activated. When the speaker describes this event, with reference to these experiences, his language would be expected to be high in referential activity (RA).

In the paper and presentation below, we describe the Discourse Attributes Analysis Program (DAAP) along with its major features and utilize this system to compare referential activity (measured as WRAD) to episodic memory strength (measured as the proportion of details pertaining to a central event). Through this comparison we will show that these constructs are empirically as well as conceptually related.