Temporal Contexts: Filling the Gap Between Episodic Memory and Associative Learning

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People can create temporal contexts, or episodes, and stimuli that belong to the same context can later be used to retrieve the memory of other events that occurred at the same time. This can occur in the absence of direct contingency and contiguity between the events, which poses a challenge to associative theories of learning and memory. Because this is a learning and memory problem, we propose an integrated approach. Theories of temporal contexts developed in the memory tradition provide interesting predictions that we test using the methods of associative learning to assess their generality and applicability to different settings and dependent variables. In 4 experiments, the integration of these 2 areas allows us to show that (a) participants spontaneously create temporal contexts in the absence of explicit instructions; (b) cues can be used to retrieve an old temporal context and the information associated with other cues that were trained in that context; and (c) the memory of a retrieved temporal context can be updated with information from the current situation that does not fit well with the retrieved memory, thereby helping participants to best adapt their behavior to the future changes of the environment.

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