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The Unconventional Memory Workshop (12 - 13 September 2023)

Idea & Motivation

Recent philosophical and scientific research has aimed to widen the boundaries of what we think memory is as well as where and how we think it occurs. This workshop is dedicated to the implications of research on these “unconventional” cases of memory. These cases include, but are not limited to:

  • Odd memory phenomena (or memory quirks) in humans
  • Memory in non-humans, including other biological and non-biological systems
  • Systems that are conventionally thought to be orthogonal to memory, such as hereditary or immune systems
  • Accounts of memory from research programs like 4E cognition, minimal cognition, basal cognition, or ecological psychology
  • Non-synaptic explanations of memory phenomena

Invited Speakers

  • Sarah Robins (Purdue University)
  • Oded Rechavi (Tel Aviv University)
  • Markus Werning (Ruhr-Universität Bochum)


Registration for the Workshop is now open. Please fill out the form via the following link:

Registration is free but mandatory.


LMU München

Ludwigstraße 31 - Room 021

80539 München

Day 1 (12 September 2023)

09:00 - 09:15 Introduction
09:15 - 11:15 Session 1
Aliya Dewey & Urtė Laukaitytė: "(Basal) memory as sensitivity to backward-facing concerns"
Deepa Rajan: "Learning and memory without a brain"
Urim Retkoceri: "Can inherited memories be considered memories?"
11:15 - 11:30 Coffee Break
11:30 - 12:30 virtual - Oded Rechavi: "Transgenerational memory and forgetting in C. elegans"
12:30 - 14:30 Lunch Break (on your own)
14:30 - 16:30 Session 2
virtual - José Carlos Camillo: "Episodic memory in non-human animals: An epistemic approach"
Bas van Woerkum: "Episodic memory in non-human animals: An ecological-enactive approach"
virtual - Tomy Ames: "Memory without mental imagery: What aphantasia tells us about remembering"
16:30 - 16:45 Coffee Break
17:15 - 18:30 Sarah Robins: "Memory error errors"

Day 2 (13 September 2023)

09:15 - 11:15 Session 3
Nathália de Ávila: "The extended body: Vicarious memories and mimetic capacities in collective PTSD"
James Openshaw & Kourken Michaelian: "Referential mnemic confabulation: A case against causal theories of remembering"
Anne Cleary: "Is memory essentially attention? A reason to pay attention to déjà vu"
11:15 - 11:30 Coffee Break
11:30 - 12:30 Markus Werning: "Predicting the past from minimal traces – and what may go wrong if trace minimalism about episodic memory is true"


Aliya Dewey (FAU Erlangen-Nürnberg) & Urtė Laukaitytė (University of California, Berkeley): (Basal) memory as sensitivity to backward-facing concerns

Basal cognition is an emerging empirical framework within the mind and life sciences. It starts with investigating the cognitive capacities of so-called ‘basal’ organisms – namely, those lacking neurons completely (e.g. slime moulds) or else with only minimal nervous systems (e.g. comb jellies). And yet it has opened up an intriguing new research paradigm, calling into question the centrality of neurons in realising such prototypically cognitive abilities as memory, planning, learning, information processing, and goal-directedness, as well as yielding novel insights about their more likely evolutionarily grounded physiological, structural, and material underpinnings. These kinds of biogenic approaches to cognition also have important implications for the possibilities of developing and aligning artificial intelligence (AI) systems – often usefully pointing to currently underexplored features that are nonetheless likely crucial to potentially building artificial minds that are actually cognitive in meaningful ways.

Research in basal cognition tends to conceptualise memory in terms of a “cognitive light cone” or a “cognitive horizon”. A cognitive light cone is the “set of events that a system can measure and attempts to regulate in its goal-directed activity”, or the “things this system can possibly care about” (Levin, 2019). The boundary of this light cone is hence “the most distant (in time and space) set of events” of significance to the system in question – with spatial and temporal distances on the horizontal and vertical axes, respectively. The horizontal direction begins with phenomena in the organism’s immediate surroundings, extending through the body outwards to its microenvironment, in certain species its territory, all the way to (in rare cases) potentially the planet, and perhaps even beyond. On the vertical axis, Levin refers to the backward-facing component of this light cone as “memory” and the forward-facing component of it as “planning”, or “prediction”. As stated, this is an extremely minimal account of capacities like memory, but it has to be minimal to achieve the theoretical aim of providing “a universal rubric, applicable regardless of the physical implementation” to answer the following question in the affirmative: “Can highly diverse Selves, with very different material structures be compared with each other in any meaningful way?”. Levin’s concrete examples of such memory-bearing systems with uniquely shaped cognitive light cones include ticks, dogs, humans, ant colonies, and potential artificial intelligences.

Now, although basal cognition researchers have not offered a much more detailed account of memory explicitly, the purpose of this paper is to sketch such an account in line with the commitments of the framework. There are two broad approaches one might take. The first may adopt an existing account of memory and then use it to precisify the concept of the cognitive light cone. That is, we could independently individuate memory in accordance with a conventional account in light of which we could then individuate the backward-facing part of the cognitive light cone as just the set of events that are both contents of memory and objects of the agent’s concern. However, there is a problem with this approach. The cognitive light cone is a theoretical concept that aims to identify meaningful similarities across a diverse set of agents, teasing out not only what a particular individual happens to remember, but also what the relevant kind of cognitive system is capable of holding in memory in the first place. To reliably achieve this aim, the notion of the cognitive light cone requires a conception of memory that is specifically built for facilitating this aim.

The second approach starts with the idea of the cognitive light cone and refines it by explicating a plausible account of memory that is of use to the empirical framework. Rather than define the backward-facing part of the cognitive light cone as the set of events that are contents of memory and objects of concern, we could instead construe memory as the backward-facing part of the cognitive light cone itself – its exact properties to be specified. But if memory is the backward-facing component of the light cone, and the light cone is the agent’s “sphere of concern”, then memory is the set of past representations that are relevant to the cognitive agent’s concerns. This account is counterintuitive: memory is usually taken to have a mind-to-world direction-of-fit, whereas concern has a world-to-mind direction-of-fit, so it could seem inappropriate to mix them.

Although a basal cognition account of memory is not accountable to folk intuition (Colaço, 2022), we suggest that it is in fact more intuitive than it might seem. For comparison, consider episodic memory. Roughly, it is a set of past representations that fall under the agent’s concern in a particular way: the events represented made a direct difference to the agent’s subjective experience. Conscious agents have special concern with their subjective experience and this concern seems to tacitly justify individuating a particular set of past representations as episodic memory. Of course, official definitions of episodic memory usually appeal to objective properties like spatiality and temporality, but these seem relevant only insofar as they help pick out memories of all and only events that were objects of consciousness (and can become objects of consciousness again during retrieval). From this perspective, then, our account of memory provides a generalisation of episodic memory: it includes all and only past representations that fall under an agent’s concern in any way, not just in a person-level conscious way.

Avoiding centring conscious representations in our account of memory enables us to provide a more “universal rubric” for selves, most of which lack this kind of consciousness (at least on most philosophical accounts of consciousness). Yet one could object that our conception of memory is defective insofar as it does not add much to the concept of the cognitive light cone – it is derivative from it. But this is false: our conception of memory reconciles part of the (primarily empirically motivated) cognitive light cone with the more conventional (often theoretical) accounts of memory. In particular, this view of memory suggests that past representations which fall under an agent’s concern (the backward-facing part of the cognitive light cone) count as memory because they adequately generalise the kind of representations that fall under an agent’s subjective concern (episodic memory). In this paper, we will develop this line of reasoning further by elaborating on the notion of concern in a way that makes good on this argument. We will also tie the cognitive light cone back to attempts at engineering sophisticated AI agents – namely, if the basal cognition framework is on the right track, it would be extremely improbable to build a superintelligence with a cognitive light cone equivalent to that of a tick, say, and yet current techniques are fundamentally not geared towards expanding it in significant ways. We will conclude by addressing a few possible objections.


Deepa Rajan (University of California, San Francisco): Learning and memory without a brain

Although learning and memory are often viewed as a unique features of organisms with complex nervous systems, single-celled organisms also demonstrate basic forms of learning and memory. The giant ciliate Stentor coeruleus responds to mechanical stimuli by contracting into a compact shape, presumably as a defense mechanism. When a Stentor cell is repeatedly stimulated at a constant level of force, it will learn to ignore that stimulus but will still respond to stronger stimuli. Prior studies of habituation in Stentor reported a graded response, suggesting that cells transition through a continuous range of response probabilities. By analyzing single cells using an automated apparatus to deliver calibrated stimuli, we find that habituation occurs via a single step-like switch in contraction probability within each cell, with the graded response in a population arising from the random distribution of switching times in individual cells. This step-like response allows Stentor behavior to be represented by a simple two-state model whose parameters can be estimated from experimental measurements. We find that transition rates depend on both the stimulus force and on the time between stimuli. The ability to measure the behavior of the same cell to the same stimulus allowed us to quantify the functional heterogeneity among single cells. Together, our results suggest that the behavior of Stentor is governed by a two-state stochastic machine whose transition rates are sensitive to the time series properties of the input stimuli.

We have also characterized the timescale of memory retention in Stentor following habituation training. After short-term training (one hour), Stentor forget their habituation within 15 minutes. However, after long-term training (overnight), Stentor can retain their habituated state for hours. Surprisingly, although most metazoans require protein synthesis for long-term memory formation, we find that inhibiting protein synthesis enhances memory retention in Stentor. This suggests that forgetting in Stentor is an active process that may require new proteins.

Cellular habituation mechanisms hold clinical relevance for conditions such as ADHD and Tourette’s Syndrome, in which habituation is impaired. Studying Stentor habituation might also shed light on the origins of intelligence by unveiling non-synaptic learning paradigms independent of complex cellular circuitry. Finally, these experiments contribute to the ancient debate about dualism, the idea that the physical body is separable from the non-physical mind. Stentor cells are a system in which the mind and body are inseparable, since the locus of learning and memory in Stentor is the cytoplasm. Stentor, with their intelligent cytoplasm and amenability to molecular biology, offer armchair philosophers a seat at the lab bench


Urim Retkoceri (LMU Munich): Can inherited memories be considered memories?

Recent scientific findings suggest that experientially acquired traits can be passed on across generations. This talk analyzes if such ‘inherited memories’ can be considered memories from the viewpoint of philosophy of memory. To be useful, such an answer will have to make at least three distinctions.

First, different memory types are distinguished. Contemporary scientific findings on inherited memories focus on non-declarative memory. I argue that the standard account of memory used in biology is inapt for analysis since it conflates memory and non-memory phenomena. Philosophical explanations face issues as well, since considering inherited memories to be memories questions the explanatory power of such accounts.

Second, a distinction is made between content which is transmitted between individuals of different generations in symbolic ways, such as narration in collective memories, and content which is transmitted biomolecularly in an ancestral relation, such as epigenetic inheritance of memories. However, because of implications following from current memory theories, the distinction between symbolically shared memory and biologically inherited memory is fuzzy.

Finally, concerning declarative memory, the theory of memory employed will determine which issues are implied. According to both, the current Simulation Theory and the current Causal Theory of Memory, inherited memories can be memories, but this would imply that multiple individuals can have numerically identical memories, which makes a distinction between shared and inherited memory fuzzy. The concept of quasi-memories can overcome this issue, but comes with its own set of challenges.

Consequently, inherited memories can be considered memories, but doing so will require resolving various issues in contemporary theories of memory.


Oded Rechavi (Tel Aviv University): Transgenerational memory and forgetting in C. elegans

In C. elegans nematodes, dedicated machinery enables transmission of small RNAs which regulate gene expression across multiple generations, independently of changes to the DNA sequence. Different environmental challenges, including exposure to starvation, genomic parasites, bacterial pathogens, and heat stress generate heritable small RNA responses, that in certain cases can be adaptive. Recently we have also shown that even neuronal processes can produce small RNA-mediated heritable responses, and that the decisions that the progeny makes are affected by whether their ancestors experienced stress or not. I will discuss the underlying mechanisms, and the potential of small RNA inheritance to affect the worms’ fate. Lastly, I will examine how these new findings might affect our view of the process of evolution and the limits of inheritance and provide evidence that transgenerational inheritance of small RNAs is possible even in other, very different organisms. top

José Carlos Camillo (Universidade Federal de Goiás): Episodic memory in non-human animals: An epistemic approach

In this talk, I will address the question on whether nonhuman animals possess episodic memory system. More specially, I will defend that, due to evidence, one is justified to believe that nonhuman animals possess episodic memory system. To defend that position, an initial definition of episodic memory system will be provided. As this definition attributes phenomenal content as the definitory feature of the system, then it may lead to the idea, defended by some psychologists, that it is impossible to be justified on believing in whether or not nonhuman animals possess episodic memory system. I will call this idea the Epistemic Impossibility Thesis. I will argue, however, that this thesis is not sound because its premises are false. After that, evidence of episodic memory in nonhuman animals will be discussed and it will be defended that it justifies the belief in question in this paper. Finally, it will address two main objections to this conclusion. One is that the evidence points to procedural rather than episodic memory. The other is that, due to their evolutionary history, animals possess a similar but different kind of memory system. top

Bas van Woerkum (Radboud University): Episodic memory in non-human animals: An ecological-enactive approach

Episodic memory, a capacity for remembering specific events, has been posited for various animals, including cuttlefish, dogs, bees, chimpanzees, mice, rats, pigeons, jays, and crows. While there is considerable debate surrounding the nature, function, and prevalence of episodic memory in animals, prevalent approaches often find themselves trapped in a cycle of constantly revising the concept of episodic memory and designing elusive “perfect experiments” to discover it in nonhuman animals. This talk aims to advance the debate by exploring animal behaviors associated with episodic memory through the lens of an ecological-enactive approach. Instead of attempting to demonstrate a specific (often human-like) sense of episodic memory, the focus is on making theoretical and empirical progress by investigating how the temporal structure of multiple events in an animal's environment facilitates behaviors commonly associated with episodic memory. To illustrate my points, I will focus on food-caching

Tomy Ames (Washington University in St. Louis): Memory without mental imagery: What aphantasia tells us about remembering

In contemporary memory-related debates, episodic memory is often characterized as mental time travel (MTT), in which you remember past events by mentally traveling back in time to when the event occurred. I will show that this view doesn't hold under scrutiny from two angles. First, I show that not all typical episodic remembering comes by way of mental time travel or scenario construction. Second, I offer aphantasia, or the inability to voluntarily visualize mental imagery, as a way to prove MTT isn't a necessary feature or property of episodic memory. While Dawes et al. (2020) shows a connection between aphantasia and episodic memory, I show the study is constructed on presumptive grounds and the result calls into question both this connection and the traditional features of episodic memory. The upshot of this view is the reframing of MTT an imaginative capacity and not a necessary function of episodic

Sarah Robins (Purdue University): Memory error errors

by exploring how it errs, breaks down, or malfunctions. This method has had a particularly forceful grip on the study of memory. The aim of this talk is to highlight ways that this focus on errors has skewed research and theorizing. I discuss three cases: 1) false memories and researchers’ views about memory’s function and reliability, 2) consolidation failures and the dominance of the synaptic view of memory storage, and 3) paramnesia and memory for objects and individuals. Each case highlights specific places where our assumptions about memory need revision. Collectively, they encourage renewed curiosity about the range of phenomena a theory of memory should explain, and how it should do

Nathália de Ávila (Universität Wien; Universität zu Köln): The extended body: Vicarious memories and mimetic capacities in collective PTSD

The present communication claims that cases of vicarious memories do not represent a challenge to embodied causation, but rather logically allow a notion of extended body according to which a past experience need not be my own in order to trigger a memory, but as it happened indeed, that still serves as a cause for remembering. This is observable in cases of collective PTSD. The core idea is that the body is not one’s own entirely but a sort of bridge to the world in which the environment and different bodies are brought together in a sort of unity (Cf. Trigg, 2019).

First, I detail how bodily extended emotions rely on the enactivist account of the lived body as a meaning carrier, for expressions and gestures fully and effectively communicate in our encounter with other subjects (Cole and Spalding, 2009; Krueger, 2014; Marzoli et. al., 2013). In addition, other studies showed that when someone is induced to adopt a specific facial expression and posture there is a tendency to actually feel such an emotion (Cf. Laird 2007’s review). The literature indicates that an emotional experience is directly related to behavioral expression as guided by embodied appraisals. Contagious emotions started to be seriously studied by Rapson and Hatfield in the 90’s. The body at once facilitates affectivity and it is a meaning carrier while it perceives and acts. For instance, as an enactivist body holds communicable meaning, it is perfectly plausible that the gestures of someone or their facial expressions directly influences my own if we are nearly placed. Here affectivity is conceived as what passes through the subject. Notice that in an internalist view the emotion is just located in the body. The extended emotion behaves as a sort of condensed expression of the environment, and it is initially depersonalized. While the subject acts, this expression is replicated in bodily gestures, guided by wonder, delight, fury or sadness. The environment in this case is what produces ourselves as emotional agents: it gets the emotion out of us, and not in: an affective transmission

Then, I show how naturalizing the idea of an extended body seems plausible if distributed and enactive remembering explore how intersubjectivity leads to new identities or rather blurs a clear border between who I am and who you are if both are in constant exchange. A dyadic personal relationship is translated into intercorporeal autonomous systems, as what is at stake here are not two individuals containing individual memories, but rather a collective shape of those by emotional attunement. Indeed, neural processes of sensorimotor and emotional dispositions overlap with perceptual emotional processes (Werning, 2020), which goes hand in hand with phenomenology’s account of embodied resonance (Gallese and Siniglagia, 2018; Geniusas, 2022). Based on simulation studies from the 80’s, embodied views of simulation explain not only how we mirror actions, but also emotion and sensation. This could be claimed to trigger reenactment in collective remembering.

I then show how mimetic capacities are a gain from evolution that allows perfectioning skills and living in a society not through what is genetically inherited but through what is learned in interaction (Donald, 2001). Emotional synchronization and imitation are normally studied through the relation between children and their parents in a similar direction than that of Fuchs (2012) when he claims the habitual progression of such a contact leads to internalized bodily postures and knowledge in the child. This leads to a structure of shared emotions that has an identity which will enhance memory mutually (Cf. Teves, 2016). Applying the idea to memory and cognitive systems, I finally construct the possibility that this makes a subject simulate another person’s personal memories as one’s own through mimicked embodied appraisals and narration. If this is plausible, that explains how sociological cases of transgenerational collective trauma make descendants of disaster survivors - such as the Chernobyl accident - undergo the same traumatic psychopathologies as their elderly family members through sharing experiences and being close to each

James Openshaw (Université Grenoble Alpes; Ruhr-Universität Bochum) & Kourken Michaelian (Université Grenoble Alpes): Referential mnemic confabulation: A case against causal theories of remembering

In this talk we argue against theories that provide one answer to the following two questions:

(Q1) Under what conditions does remembering occur?
(Q2) Under what conditions does mnemic reference to particular events in one’s past occur?

Theories that provide the same answer to (Q1) and (Q2) will be unable to predict and explain cases in which there is mnemic reference to particular events without remembering, and vice-versa. Insofar as defenders of causalist theories of remembering adopt the same causal story as an account of mnemic reference, they rule out the possibility of cases in which a mnemic confabulator mnemically refers to some event(s) in their past. If mnemic confabulations are “errors because they lack a causal connection between the event and its representation” (Robins 2020: 126) and “which particular past event is represented [...] is determined by the causal ancestry of the memory [trace]” (Soteriou 2018: 308), referential mnemic confabulation should not be possible. But, we argue, it is.

Reviewing the empirical literature, we examine cases of mnemic confabulation which involve significant temporal displacement and distortion but which, nevertheless, appear to involve genuine (and successful) mnemic reference. Besides being of independent interest, these peculiar cases suggest that we need to separate our account of mnemic reference from our account of remembering. As a result, one apparent advantage of causalist theories of remembering—that they can use the notion of appropriate causation both to distinguish remembering and confabulating and to explain mnemic reference—is in fact a defect.


Anne Cleary (Colorado State University): Is memory essentially attention? A reason to pay attention to déjà vu

onscious cognitive processes can be categorized within a framework of ‘external’ and ‘internal’ direction (Chun et al., 2011; Chun & Johnson, 2011; Dixon et al., 2014; Servais et al., 2023). An example of externally directed cognition is focusing on a presentation that a speaker is delivering during a conference, whereas an example of internally directed cognition is reminiscing about a recent event.

There is evidence that large-scale networks that toggle back and forth in a mutually exclusive manner involving the hippocampus may direct the external versus internal orientation of neural states (Barbeau et al., 2017), and recent work suggests possible behavioral indicators of the switch from outward-directed to inward-directed attention (Servais et al., 2023). However, two important and related domains are conceptually underdeveloped.

First, factors in the external environment that can lead to the involuntary “switching” (Servais et al., 2023) or “flipping” (Cleary et al., 2023) of selective attention from outward to inward remain underexplored. Cleary et al. (2023) suggest that one factor sending attention inward may be cue familiarity-detection. Familiarity-detection is the ability to sense that an item or aspect of a situation has been experienced in some manner at a point in the past, even when conscious recall of any relevant prior experience fails. Cleary et al. (2023) suggest that, rather than merely being a memory mechanism for the detection and sensation of prior occurrence, familiarity-detection might play a larger and overlooked role in directing the focus of attention. Specifically, familiarity-detection might direct attention inward toward a search of memory for relevant information to the situation at hand, thus, modulating attention.

Second, there appears to be a likely mapping of externally directed attention with memory encoding, and internally directed attention with memory retrieval. The former mapping has long been widely acknowledged (e.g., Kumaran & Maguire, 2009). The latter mapping has been a more recent proposal in the memory literature, and reflects the basic theoretical framework that memory retrieval processes are essentially mechanisms of inward-directed selective attention (Chun et al., 2011; Chun & Johnson, 2011; Logan et al., 2021; Servais et al., 2023), whereby a selection mechanism operates among competing candidate memory representations to enable a limited set of representations to enter awareness or be held in immediate memory based on factors like their relevance to the situation at hand (Long et al., 2018). Some evidence even hints at the possibility that externally and internally oriented attention (oriented toward encoding vs. retrieval, respectively) may result from mutually exclusive neural states (Barbeau et al., 2017). However, attempting to address the question of what can cause selective attention to involuntarily flip from being focused outward toward encoding to being focused inward toward memory retrieval has been an even more recent and ongoing theoretical development (Cleary et al., 2023).

Recent evidence on the idea that familiarity-detection can send attention inward toward retrieval search effort can be found in studies of déjà vu (when a situation is intensely familiar while also paradoxically novel, Cleary & Brown, 2022). Hints from existing studies of déjà vu suggest that it is associated with possible indicators of inward-directed retrieval search effort like longer time spent searching memory and a greater likelihood of guessing at inaccurate candidate pieces of information, as well as stronger feelings of curiosity to discover if a previous experience might be responsible (McNeely-White & Cleary, 2023); this adds to a growing body of evidence that encountering familiar-seeming stimuli may automatically prompt memory retrieval attempts (Carlaw et al., 2022), contributing to the proposal that familiarity-detection flips attention inward (Cleary et al., 2023). Many hints also exist throughout the broader, older cognitive science literature in support of the hypothesis that familiarity-detection sends attention inward toward memory search, as will be discussed in this talk.


Markus Werning (Ruhr-Universität Bochum): Predicting the past from minimal traces – and what may go wrong if trace minimalism about episodic memory is true



David Colaço (MCMP/LMU Munich)


The conference is supported by the Alexander von Humboldt - Foundation.