Project leader: Ali Boyle
Duration: September 2022 - September 2026
We remember many events from our past, from the momentous to the mundane. Most of us find we can ‘mentally replay’ these past events in our mind’s eye. This kind of memory is called episodic memory.
Episodic memory is absolutely central to our mental lives. Its loss, as in conditions like Alzheimer’s disease, can be devastating. But episodic memory research is a relatively young field, home to several outstanding puzzles. The Episodic Memory: Uniquely Human? project, a four-year UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship led by Dr Ali Boyle, addresses two of them.
First, what is episodic memory’s function? That is, what precisely does it do, and why is it useful for us to have episodic memory, in addition to memory for facts and skills?
Second, how widespread is episodic memory? Do other animals remember past events, or is this a uniquely human cognitive achievement?
Perhaps surprisingly, these are both subjects of intense debate in the science and philosophy of memory. And although they’re often tackled separately, they’re importantly connected: we can’t detect episodic memory in animals without an account of its function, and an account of episodic memory’s function ought to be informed by both its human and non-human manifestations. This project takes an integrative approach, aiming to advance our understanding of both issues by bringing them together with a third important strand of episodic memory research: artificial implementations of episodic memory, which have led to significant recent developments in AI.
Drawing on evidence and tools from philosophy, comparative cognitive science and AI, the project will develop a new account of episodic memory's function, using this to advance debates about episodic memory in animals and suggest new applications for episodic memory in AI. It will be the first project to bring these three disciplines together to inform accounts of episodic memory’s function, and to give significant philosophical attention to episodic memory in AI.
As part of the research, the project team – which will include two Post-Doctoral and one PhD Researcher – will collaborate with colleagues at the University of Cambridge to implement tests of episodic memory in a 3D simulated environment: the Animal-AI Testbed. The results will shed important light on episodic memory’s role in cognition and the methods for detecting it in animals.
Ali Boyle is an Assistant Professor in Philosophy at the LSE's Department of Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method.
She works in the philosophy of science. Most of her research is about comparative cognitive science - the science of nonhuman minds, from animals to artificial agents. Ali Boyle currently holds a UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship (FLF) at the LSE's Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Sciences. Her FLF project focusses on the nature of episodic memory - memory for personally experienced past events - and its manifestations in animals and machines. She also works in the philosophy of biology, where she’s interested in how to count organisms in tricky cases like conjoined twinning, parasitism and pregnancy.
Before joining the LSE, she held Research Fellowships at the University of Cambridge and the University of Bonn. Before that, she received her BA, MPhil and PhD in Philosophy from the University of Cambridge.
More about Ali Boyle can be found on her personal website.
Andrea Blomkvist is a postdoctoral researcher on the project 'Episodic Memory: Uniquely Human?', where she will primarily be working on episodic memory in AI. She earned her PhD from the University of Sheffield in 2021 under the supervision of Luca Barlassina and Dominic Gregory. Subsequently, she was a Teaching Associate in Philosophy of Psychology & Cognitive Science at the University of Sheffield, before taking up a position as a postdoctoral researcher at the Centre for Philosophical Psychology (University of Antwerp). Her main research interests lie in the philosophy of cognitive science, and include memory, imagination and mental imagery, comparative cognition, and issues about explanation and representation.
Personal Web link: https://www.andreablomkvist.com/