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Do complex event representations fragment over time or are they, instead, forgotten in an all-or-none manner? For example, if we met a friend in a café and they gave us a present, do we forget the constituent elements of this event (location, person and object) independently, or would the whole event be forgotten as one? Research suggests that item-based memories are forgotten in a fragmented manner. However, we do not know how more complex episodic, ‘event-based’ memories are forgotten. We assessed both retrieval accuracy and dependency – the statistical association between the retrieval successes of different elements from the same event – for complex events. Across 4 experiments, we show that retrieval dependency is found both immediately after learning and following a 12-hour and 1-week delay. Further, the amount of retrieval dependency after a delay is greater than that predicted by a model of independent forgetting. This dependency was only seen for coherent ‘closed-loops’, where all pairwise associations between locations, people and objects were encoded. When ‘open-loops’ were learnt, where only two out of the three possible associations were encoded, no dependency was seen immediately after learning nor after a delay. Finally, we also provide evidence for higher retention rates for closed-loops than open-loops. Therefore, closed-loops do not fragment as a function of forgetting, and are retained for longer than open-loops. Our findings suggest that coherent episodic events are not only retrieved, but also forgotten, in an all-or-none manner.
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