See also: Event model analysis in the Toolbox.

An “event” is a basic concept grounded in the panhuman ability to parse the constant stream of experience into coherent parts that have a beginning and an end. Events are implicitly acknowledged as a fundamental concept in a broad range of disciplines. Historians study historical events; anthropologists participate in events and reconstruct them, journalists report on events; and psychologists of perception study how individuals perceive structured events instead of a disjointed chaos of stimuli. Even the most relativistic of discourse theorists typically refer to events at one point or other, whether as objects of “interpretation”, or as “discursive events”. Since no discipline or theoretical school can do without it, “event” is an ideal candidate for bringing together the lower-level processes of how people experience the world and process information about it, and higher-level processes of creating narratives and cultural categories for special types of experiences, actions, or happenings.

While scholars in a wide range of humanities disciplines appear to take “event” as a pretheoretical, unproblematic category of “stuff that happens”, literature on event cognition shows that there are crucial processing constraints on how events are represented in the mind. These can help us account for the way events are turned into memories, stories, and narratives, and even give us a better picture of how events are represented, interpreted and reinvented over time and in different contexts.

Event cognition covers a broad body of research including perception, reading comprehension, attention, memory, and problem solving (see Radvansky & Zacks 2014). While an “event” can be defined simply as “a segment of time at a given location that is perceived by an observer to have a beginning and an end” (Zacks and Tversky 2001), “event cognition” refers to the set of mechanisms that allow the observer to perceive it that way. Event cognition allow us to form mental representations of what is going on around us, but also to identify and store information about specific types of events (event schemata), predict what will happen next, and take appropriate motor-responses and plan complex intentional actions (Radvansky and Zacks, 2014). Since an event is the result of such complex and interactive processing, it does not refer to something that first “simply happens” and then is “interpreted”. The process of perceiving events is interpretation all the way down.

Central to this framework is the notion of an event model, a mental representation of a given event. Event models will typically represent entities and agents that appear relevant to the observer, along with the relations between these entities and the place and time in which the event takes place. The event model that represents what is going on right now (i.e., the subject’s conscious experience of what happens) is called the working model, and is actively maintained in working memory. However, we also use event models to forecast future events, imagine hypothetical events (scenarios), understand events that are narrated to us (e.g., when reading, listening to a story, or watching TV), and reconstruct memories of past events.

Event models are thus related to memory in complex ways. For example, past working models can be stored in episodic memory, from which they can be recreated later as a new event model that represents (if the memory is accurate) some features of the original working model. Generic information about types of events is stored in semantic memory, which, together with non-declarative, procedural memory for motor tasks, form a crucial part of event schemata. This schematic information is, in turn, used actively to identify event types and make real-time predictions in “online” event cognition.

The constraints on event processing studied in event cognition allow humanists to make more sophisticated inferences about the role of background knowledge in experience, the relationship between varying narrative accounts, meaning-making processes concerning events that appear inexplicable or hard to understand, and processes of classification and explanation of events.


  • Radvansky and Zacks (2014). Event Cognition. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Taves, Ann, and Egil Asprem. (In press). “Experience as Event: Event Cognition and the Study of (Religious) Experience.” Religion, Brain & Behavior.
  • Zacks, Jeffrey M., and Tversky, B. 2001. “Event Structure in Perception and Conception.Psychological Bulletin 127: 3-21.
  • Zacks, Jeffrey M., Nicole K. Speer, Khena M. Swallow, Todd S. Braver, and Jeremy R. Reynolds. 2007. “Event Perception: A Mind-Brain Perspective.” Psychological Bulletin 133.2: 273-293.


By Egil Asprem & Ann Taves (2016). License: CC BY-SA 3.0.

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