18 November 2010

The organization of experience

Tversky, Zacks and Hard (2008) argue that the interpretation of everyday action and experience needs the intregration of information and the making sense of it (2008: 436). Although we have the sensation and impression of a stable world, evidence from behavioral and neuroimaging data (Zacks, 2010; Zacks & Tversky, 2001; Zacks, Tversky & Iyer, 2001; Zacks & Swallow, 2007) suggests that the brain automatically segments the ever-changing multimodal (visual, auditory, haptic, action and other sensorimotor experiences) stream of information into hierarchical parts and subparts. The origin of such multimodal stream of information is the activities (e.g. travel by plane) and events which compose such activities (e.g. get to the airport; complete the check-in; buy presents at the free-shop).

Despite the fact that this multimodal stream of information is changing, these authors suggest that the human brain segments it into sequences of key moments (Tversky, Zacks & Hard, 2008: 436). Zacks and Swallow (2007) argue that this segmentation depends on bottom-up processing of sensory features (e.g. sound, color, movement), and on top-down processing of conceptual features (e.g. actors’ goals, cause-and-effect interactions). Thus, when characteristics of one’s environment unpredictably change an event boundary is perceived. The ways in which the brain and the mind segment activities and events play a central role in what and how we remember later (Zacks, Tversky & Iyer, 2001).

By pointing this out, I am claiming that the picture presented by Bruner’s narrative organization of experience (Bruner, 1990) or Wertsch’s standpoint on how collective memories are formed (Wertsch, 2002) need to be grounded in lower level cognitive processes. On the other hand, I am not denying that narrative schemata can order and structure remembrance in discourse and social interactions, but I am arguing that this interactive process may occur when the stream of multimodal experience was previously segmented into events at the brain and mind level. Moreover, the construction of narrative schemata needs to be grounded in life scripts if they refer to the life-span or in cultural models (Kronenfeld, 2008; Shore, 1996) if they instantiate more general knowledge.


Kronenfeld, D. (2008). Cultural models. Intercultural Pragmatics 5 (1), 67-74.

Shore, B. (1996). Culture in Mind: Cognition, Culture and the Problem of Meaning. New York: Oxford University Press.

Tversky, B., Zacks, J.M. & Hard, B.M. (2008). The structure of experience. In T. Shipley & J.M. Zacks (eds.), Understanding Events (pp. 436-464). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wertsch, J. (2002). Voices of Collective Remembering. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Zacks, J.M., & Tversky, B. (2001). Event structure in perception and conception. Psychological Bulletin 127, 3–21.

Zacks, J.M., Tversky, B., & Iyer, G. (2001). Perceiving, remembering, and communicating structure in events. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 130, 29–58.

Zacks, J. M. & Swallow, K.M. (2007). Event segmentation. Current Directions in Psychological Science 16 (2) 80-84

Zacks, J.M. (2010). How we organize our experience into events. Psychological Science Agenda 24. [URL : [http://www.apa.org/science/about/psa/2010/04/sci-brief.aspx]

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