Modulation of Task Demands Suggests That Semantic Processing Interferes With the Formation of Episodic Associations

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Although episodic and semantic memory share overlapping neural mechanisms, it remains unclear how our pre-existing semantic associations modulate the formation of new, episodic associations. When freely recalling recently studied words, people rely on both episodic and semantic associations, shown through temporal and semantic clustering of responses. We asked whether orienting participants toward semantic associations interferes with or facilitates the formation of episodic associations. We compared electroencephalographic (EEG) activity recorded during the encoding of subsequently recalled words that were either temporally or semantically clustered. Participants studied words with or without a concurrent semantic orienting task. We identified a neural signature of successful episodic association formation whereby high-frequency EEG activity (HFA, 44–100 Hz) overlying left prefrontal regions increased for subsequently temporally clustered words, but only for those words studied without a concurrent semantic orienting task. To confirm that this disruption in the formation of episodic associations was driven by increased semantic processing, we measured the neural correlates of subsequent semantic clustering. We found that HFA increased for subsequently semantically clustered words only for lists with a concurrent semantic orienting task. This dissociation suggests that increased semantic processing of studied items interferes with the neural processes that support the formation of novel episodic associations.

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