The end is only the beginning: changing episodic memories after the fact

Memories of events, situations and experiences we have gone through are extremely important in our lives; they largely define who we are and influence our choices and actions every day. These kinds of memories are called episodic memories. But while we encounter an endless number of events every single day, only a small fragment of them will stick with us as episodic memories.

Why are certain memories more easily gone than others? Many people have probably pondered on this question, and our research team at Maastricht University is no exception. But we were lucky enough to be able to seek answers ourselves, by conducting an online experiment on episodic memory formation.

Many things could possibly influence whether we remember something or not, and in our study, we’ll focus on one of these: Whether the event was successfully encoded in the first place. It might sound surprising, but past research has suggested that the encoding of events in our brain doesn’t happen during the event itself, but right afterwards. Therefore, if we interfere with this encoding process, the transformation of the event into episodic memory might become less successful. This would result in worsened memory of that particular event.

We’ll test this idea by showing our participants short movie clips, half of which are immediately followed by a set of images. The movie clips will serve as the “events” participants are supposed to remember, and the images are expected to interfere with episodic memory formation of the clips. We’ll then look at whether participants indeed have worse memory on the clips followed by interfering images. We are also interested in how this interference affects memory at different times after the event. Therefore, half of our participants will get a memory test 20 minutes after seeing the movie clips, and the other half 24 hours after seeing the movie clips.   We hope that our research will give us some valuable insights into how episodic memories are formed, and help us better understand why we remember certain events more than others.

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