Varieties of Memory and Consciousness: Essays in Honour of Endel Tulving

By Henry L. Roediger III; Fergus I. M. Craik et al. | Go to book overview

20
Consciousness and the Function of Remembered Episodes: Comments on the Fourth Section

Robert S. Lockhart University of Toronto

The chapters in this section provide an abundance of material for discussion; they cover a vast range of topics and reveal the widely differing perspectives of their authors. Rather than attempting a systematic review of each, this commentary examines the relevance of each chapter to the general theme of consciousness and the function of episodic memory.

Our ability to remember particular past events undoubtedly serves many functions; but the major function of episodic memory probably lies in the flexibility it imparts to the processes by which we construct and revise rules, especially the kind of rules that enable us to comprehend past events and predict future outcomes. The point is best made with the help of a hypothetical example. Consider the plight of a person, say Smith, who suffers an allergic reaction while eating a meal. Smith needs to establish the cause of the reaction--a rule that will explain this present event and anticipate future reactions. Suppose the initially suspected food is a variety of shellfish, but that a subsequent meal containing this same food results in no allergic reaction, whereas an allergic reaction is obtained following a third meal in which the shellfish was not present. How should the hypothesis be revised? It is clear that an appropriate interrogation of the episodic memory for each of the three meals can serve as the basis for a revised hypothesis. Such an interrogation might, for example, establish what foods were common to the two meals associated with the allergic reaction, but was absent from other meals. That is, episodic memory creates the possibility of conducting effective thought experiments; hypotheses can be formulated and tested using conditions and outcomes that have already occurred. It is episodic memory that affords the retrospective assembling of these conditions and their associated outcomes.

An organism without episodic memory would be limited to rule learning of

-423-

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