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Title: Episodic cognition : what is it, where is it, and when does it develop?
Author: Cheke, Lucy Gaia
ISNI:       0000 0004 2727 890X
Awarding Body: University of Cambridge
Current Institution: University of Cambridge
Date of Award: 2012
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Episodic Cognition (or “Mental Time Travel”) is the ability to mentally re-experience events from our personal past and imagine potential events from our personal future. This capacity is fundamental to our lives and has been argued to be uniquely human. The aim of this thesis is to use behavioural tasks developed in comparative cognition to integrate both the literature on different research subjects (animals, children, adults, patients) but also from different theoretical perspectives, with the hope of facilitating communication and comparison between these fields. The backbone of the thesis is the behavioural tasks themselves, along with their origins in theory. Specifically, the “What-Where-When”, “Unexpected Question” and “Free Recall” episodic memory tasks and the “Bischof-Köhler” test of episodic foresight. Each of these tasks stems from different theoretical approaches to defining episodic cognition. Whilst extensively studied, these four tasks have never been undertaken by the same subjects and have never been directly compared. It is thus unclear whether these different theoretical perspectives converge on a single “episodic cognition” system, or a variety of overlapping processes. This thesis explores these issues by presenting these tasks to previously untested animal (the Eurasian Jay), developing children (aged 3-6), and a sample of human adults (Cambridge Undergraduates). Finally, these findings are applied in the assessment of episodic cognition in a population that is thought to have mild hippocampal damage – the overweight and obese. It was predicted that if all these putative tests of episodic cognition were tapping into the same underlying ability, then they should be passed by the same animal species, develop at the same time in children, correlate in human adults and be impaired in those with damage to the relevant brain areas. These predictions were, to some degree, confirmed. While the novel animal model could not be tested on all paradigms, the jays performed well on Bischof-Köhler future planning test. However, the results of the What-Where-When memory test were equivocal. There was a relatively low degree of correlation between performance on all the tasks in human children, along with a suggestion that each had a distinct developmental trajectory. The study of human adults revealed that while performance on all the tasks were related to one another, this relationship was often nonlinear, suggesting the contribution of several different psychological processes. Finally, it was found that both memory and performance on the Bischof-Köhler future planning task were altered in individuals who are overweight. A potentially surprising theme throughout the results is that performance on the Bischof-Köhler tasks is in fact negatively related to performance on memory tests, and improves in patients thought to have mild hippocampal damage. It is concluded that there may be a significant degree of overlap in the processes tapped by different putative tests of episodic memory, but that they can not be considered to be equivalent. Furthermore, it is suggested that episodic cognition is a fundamentally ineffective system with which to predict future motivational states, because it is biased by current feelings.
Supervisor: Clayton, Nicola Susan Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
Keywords: Memory ; Cognition