Untitled‎ > ‎

Narrative and Referential Activity

Kristin Nelson

Narrative is a discourse form used in all languages for retelling past episodes, whether recalled or imagined. It develops throughout childhood and is part of all adult language speakers’ unconscious linguistic competence. As the linguist Labov (1997) notes, stories “can transfer the experience of the narrator to the audience, due to the unique and defining property of personal narratives that events are experienced as they first became known to the narrator” (p. 415). Of course, what the listener experiences is the speaker’s recollection of this succession of new events. In stories, episodic language reflects episodic remembering and communicates it to self and listener.

Universal Story Structure: 

Cross-linguistic and historical studies have found that spontaneous oral narratives, or stories, exhibit a discourse grammar distinct from that of “here-and-now” speech. This structure typically includes four sections: an (1) Abstract, summarizing what the story is about; (2) Orientation to the story’s who, what, when and where; (3) Complicating action, telling what happened (often leading to a Peak and then to a Resolution); and a (4) Coda, or reprise of the story and return to the current speaker-listener situation (Fleischmann, 1990; Labov, 1972). In addition, Evaluation segments, demonstrating why the story is being told, occur throughout. Psycholinguists (Clark, 1996) see this common structure as emerging from speakers’ unconscious knowledge of how to guide the listener into, through, and out of a cognitive representation or “situational model” of past or imagined events.

Even the briefest account of the past qualifies as a story if it contains a Complicating Action section—at least two sentences in the simple past tense, spoken in chronological order, that is in order of remembered events (Labov, 1997). Thus, narrative speech has an iconic quality: it mimics recollected events verbally (Fleischman, 1990). Temporal sequence is also the hallmark of episodic memory (Chafe, 1973; Tulving, 2001). Neuroscience has demonstrated the critical importance of spatial and temporal coding by the hippocampus for both the formation and retrieval of personal episodic memories (Bohbot, 2007; Smith and Mizumori, 2006).

Story-now vs. Speaker-now Speech: 

As Fleischman (1990, p. 125) points out, stories “are intrinsically structured with two time frames: the time of the telling of the story and the time during which the events of the story are assumed to have taken place.” Fleischman calls these two time frames, respectively, speaker-now and story-now. Story-now speech characterizes the central Complicating Action and the preceding Orientation to it, and can be identified in all languages by distinct grammatical changes. These include a reversal of the usual marked and unmarked tenses (the past tense becomes the usual, and present tense the unusual, or marked tense, used to mark the story’s Peak); and a systematic shift in the meaning of context-dependent word, so that speaker and listener automatically understand that “I” and “now,” for example, refer to not the current situation but to the past speaker and past setting.

According to psycholinguistic research, the distinct grammar of story-now speech also signals a distinct cognitive state in which speaker and listener “jointly imagine” (Clark, 1996) that the retold events are occurring now. A similar cognitive state occurs spontaneously in children play-acting and adult theatergoers: the here-and-now becomes less salient than the “other time” represented. This is also the state of mind people enter when recalling personal episodic memories: what Endel called “time travel,” noting that episodic memory is “the only memory system that allows people to re-experience the past” (Tulving, 2001).

Narrative as a Defensive Indicator:

Since narrating the personal past requires re-activation of episodic memories in sequential detail, telling about about past upsetting times without narrating them—remaining in the speaker-now --may be one unconscious defense against such episodic re-activation. Nelson adapted Labov’s (1997) definition of temporally-sequenced speech to measure fine-grained variations in people’s immersion in memories of past distressing events (see Nelson et al., 2008 and 2009 for details of the method). In several empirical studies of natural recollections of stressful memories, Nelson and colleagues (2001, 2008, 2009; Shaw et al. 2001) found that retelling painful past episodes with little or no narrative immersion (temporally-sequenced sentences as a proportion of total speech) was associated with high scores on personality measures of avoidant defensiveness. Conversely, high narrative immersion characterized non-regulated episodic memory activation in patients suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Relationship between RA and Narrative:

Narrative analysis and Referential Activity were developed independently, from linguistics and cognitive psychology, respectively. Each has theoretical claims to measure episodic memory activation and thus, the two measures should be highly associated. Previous work by Bucci and colleagues (1995) found a deformation of the expected narrative structure (Orientation) in clinically depressed patients, and Mergenthaler & Bucci (1999) discuss theoretical connections between narrative discourse and high-RA speech. Nelson’s work on young adult depressive memories showed that narration was positively correlated with reader ratings of Imagery, one subscale of Bucci’s original Referential Activity measure (Bucci et al., 1992).

In a direct comparison of the two methods on the same transcripts of adolescents speaking about past stressful times, transcripts of controlled length were analyzed for narrative immersion, measured as the number of temporal sequences spoken (reliably measured by two coders) (Nelson et al., 2008) The two measures were correlated Spearman's r = .69, p < .001, N=55. These findings support the hypothesis that narrative immersion and referential activity assess different, but overlapping, elements involved in episodic memory activation.


Bohbot, V. D. & Corkin, S. (2007). Posterior Parahippocampal Place Learning in H. M. Hippocampus, 17, 863-872.

Bucci, W., Kasabakalian-McKay, R., and the RA Research Group (1992). Scoring referential activity: Instructions for use with transcripts of spoken narrative texts. Ulm, Germany: Ulmer Textbank.

Bucci, W. (1995). The power of the narrative: A multiple code account. In J. W. Pennebaker (Ed.), Emotion, disclosure and health (pp. 71-92). Washington DC: American Psychological Association.

Chafe, W. L. (1973). Language and memory. Language, 49, 261-281.

Clark, H. H. (1996). Using language. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Fleischman, S. (1990). Tense and narrativity: From medieval performance to modern fiction. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Labov, W. (1972). The transformation of experience in narrative syntax. In W. Labov (Ed.), Language in the inner city: Studies in Black English vernacular (pp. 354-396). Philadelphia: University of Washington Press.

Labov, W. (1997). Some further steps in narrative analysis. Journal of Narrative and Life History, 7, 395-415.

Nelson, K. L., Moskovitz, D. J., & Steiner, H. (2008). Narration and vividness as measures of event-specificity in autobiographical memory. Discourse Processes, 45, 195-209.

Mergenthaler, E. & Bucci, W. (1999). Linking verbal and nonverbal representations: Computer analysis of Referential Activity. British Journal of Medical Psychology, 72, 339-354.

Nelson, K. L., Bein, E., Huemer, J., Ryst, E., & Steiner, H. (2009). Listening for avoidance: Narrative form and defensiveness in adolescent memories. Journal of Child Psychiatry and Human Development, 40, 561-573. http://www.mdlinx.com/readArticle.cfm?art_id=2724875.

Shaw, R., Harvey, J. E., Nelson, K. L., Gunary, R., Kruk, H., & Steiner, H. (2001). Linguistic analysis to assess medically related posttraumatic stress symptoms. Psychosomatics, 42, 35-40.

Smith, David M. & Mizumori, Sheri J.Y. (2006). Hippocampal place cells, context, and episodic memory. Hippocampus, 16, 716-29.

Tulving, E. (2001). Origin of autonoesis in episodic memory. In H. L. Roediger, J. S. Nairne, I. Neath, and A. M. Surprenant, (Eds.), The nature of remembering (pp. 17-34). Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.