Narrativity and Referential Activity Predict Episodic Memory Strength in Autobiographical Memories

Abstract

Narrativity has been proposed as an indicator of episodic memory strength when people discuss their past (Nelson and Horowitz in Discourse Processes 31:307–324, 2001. https://doi.org/10.1207/S15326950dp31-3_5). Referential Activity, the extent to which words convey a speaker's experience of being present in the event being described, has been independently hypothesized to indicate episodic memory strength (Maskit in J Psycholinguist Res, 2021. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10936-021-09761-8). These hypotheses are tested using a linguistic measure of narrativity and a computerized measure of referential activity to predict previous independent ratings of episodic memory strength that used the Levine et al. (Psychol Aging 17(4):677–689, 2002. https://doi.org/10.1037//0882-7974.17.4.677) measure of internal details in retold personal memories provided by Schacter (Addis et al. in Psychol Sci 19(1):33–41, 2008. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02043.x). Raters scored narrativity on four brief near and far past memories elicited from 32 subjects, using Nelson's narrative temporal sequence method based on Labov’s (J Narrat Life Hist 7(1–4):395–415, 1997. https://doi.org/10.1075/jnlh.7.49som) analysis of spoken narratives of personal experience; computerized weighted scores of referential activity (WRAD) were obtained on these same 128 memories. Data analysis showed that narrative temporal sequences predict internal details and WRAD predict internal details. Adding WRAD to narrative temporal sequences improved the prediction of internal details.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Researchers (including the first author) have used “event-specific” rather than "episodic" to denote this type of personal episodic memory, to distinguish it from episodic memory of studied items (i.e. experiences that participants knew they would be asked to recall; Nadel and Hardt 2011, p. 266). Here we use episodic memory, the more general and widely-adopted term.

  2. 2.

    There is neuroscientific evidence (Addis et al. 2007; Madore et al. 2015; Madore and Schacter 2016; Moscovitch et al. 2016; Robin and Moscovitch, 2017; Schacter and Addis 2007a, b; Schacter et al. 2012; Sheldon et al. 2011) that the episodic memory system is also used for imagining the future, as well as for creative problem solving, empathy, and other cognitive functions.

  3. 3.

    For example, "[a] The teacher came in [b] just in time to stop the fight [c] that started after I punched this boy [d] who had punched me" is one such "possible, but non-preferred," way of retelling events that were actually narrated by one of his adolescent interviewees thus: "[a] This boy punched me [b] and I punched him [c] and the teacher came in [d] and stopped the fight" (Labov, 1972, p. 361).

  4. 4.

    As our hypotheses do not concern age, the two age groups were combined.

  5. 5.

    This is Labov's transitivity test: "compare main clause 1 with the next main clause 2 to determine whether a reversal of their order in the text resulted in a change in the reader's original interpretation of the order of the events described" (Labov 1997, p. 399). More formally, proposition p is Sequential if the reader's original interpretation of the plot is changed by moving p in the a text before the preceding proposition p-1 (or before the first in a group of co-occurring propositions p-1, p-2, … p-n).

  6. 6.

    Note: the increase is non-linear, consistent with the negative binomial model.

  7. 7.

    Note: the increase is non-linear, consistent with the negative binomial model.

  8. 8.

    Because NTS and MWRAD are measured on different scales, it is not meaningful to compare their regression coefficients.

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Acknowledgement

The authors are grateful to Daniel Schacter, Department of Psychology, Harvard University for providing access to his scored memory transcripts. Dr. Schacter’s research was supported by grants from the National Institute on Aging AG08441. We thank Ed Bein for consultation and comments on article drafts.

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Appendix: Examples of Memory Excerpts High on Episodic Memory Strength with Contrasting Levels of Narrativity and Referential Activity

Appendix: Examples of Memory Excerpts High on Episodic Memory Strength with Contrasting Levels of Narrativity and Referential Activity

Excerpt 1: Higher Referential Activity, Lower Narrativity

I was on a cranberry bog and I was assigned … to dredge with a hoe, the ditch all around the bog so I have this giant pole pulling the weeds … and every few seconds, I'm thinking the crayfish will come running out at me or tadpole will jump … stepping on them, it's horrible, every time I drag one, I … keep on running away to the woods … throw it back in the, into the actual stream nearby … it was a hot afternoon, I look like a modern version of a Vietnamese worker, standing in broad straw hat, a button-down shirt and jeans, both of them rolled up … stupid hat … I was barefoot … and it was really dusty because I've been kicking up dirt all day, I was enjoying it a bit …high stratosphere clouds—sun is out—you could see loads of birds … frogs jumping, fish hopping, the cranberry bog was green, red a little mix … in the distance, occasionally hear the fog horn—the water was clapping over and over.

Excerpt 2: Higher Narrativity, Lower Referential Activity

I remember my apartment door buzzing and I didn't know who it was, I had an argument with the person that was buzzing and they said they have a delivery for me and I said I'm not expecting anything and I went downstairs… it was a Saturday … cool weather, sunny beautiful spring day … and there's the UPS guy with a big box with my name on it and it's from International Mail and I'm like what's this because I'm not expecting anything from International Mail … and I remember opening in front of him and inside was this long full length black faux mink fur coat and I called the number on the shipping slip, I said to the lady, I'm not expecting this and they said they don't have a record of it and I remember having this long argument with them … and finally the UPS man left and I said don't leave! I remember the panic of that … and there was no way to return it, they wouldn't take it back …

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Nelson, K.L., Murphy, S.M. & Bucci, W. Narrativity and Referential Activity Predict Episodic Memory Strength in Autobiographical Memories. J Psycholinguist Res (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10936-021-09763-6

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Keywords

  • Narrative
  • Episodic memory
  • Episodic memory strength
  • Referential Activity
  • Autobiographical memory
  • Autobiographical Interview (AI)
  • Internal Details
  • Memory impairment