The experimental evidence on the interrelation between episodic memory and semantic memory is inconclusive. Are they independent systems, different aspects of a single system, or separate but strongly interacting systems? Here, we propose a computational role for the interaction between the semantic and episodic systems that might help resolve this debate. We hypothesize that episodic memories are represented as sequences of activation patterns. These patterns are the output of a semantic representational network that compresses the high-dimensional sensory input. We show quantitatively that the accuracy of episodic memory crucially depends on the quality of the semantic representation. We compare two types of semantic representations: appropriate representations, which means that the representation is used to store input sequences that are of the same type as those that it was trained on, and inappropriate representations, which means that stored inputs differ from the training data. Retrieval accuracy is higher for appropriate representations because the encoded sequences are less divergent than those encoded with inappropriate representations. Consistent with our model prediction, we found that human subjects remember some aspects of episodes significantly more accurately if they had previously been familiarized with the objects occurring in the episode, as compared to episodes involving unfamiliar objects. We thus conclude that the interaction with the semantic system plays an important role for episodic memory.

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