Electrophysiological distinctions between recognition memory with and withoutawareness

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The influence of implicit memory representations on explicit recognition may help to explain cases of accurate recognition decisions made with high uncertainty. During a recognition task, implicit memory may enhance the fluency of a test item, biasing decision processes to endorse it as “old”. This model may help explain recognition-without-identification, a remarkable phenomenon in which participants make highly accurate recognition decisions despite the inability to identify the test item. The current study investigated whether recognition-without-identification for pictures elicits a similar pattern of neural activity as other types of accurate recognition decisions made with uncertainty. Further, this study also examined whether recognition-without-identification for pictures could be attained by the use of perceptual and conceptual information from memory. To accomplish this, participants studied pictures and then performed a recognition task under difficult viewing conditions while event-related potentials (ERPs) were recorded. Behavioral results showed that recognition was highly accurate even when test items could not be identified, demonstrating recognition-without-identification. The behavioral performance also indicated that recognition-without-identification was mediated by both perceptual and conceptual information, independently of one another. The ERP results showed dramatically different memory related activity during the early 300 to 500 ms epoch for identified items that were studied compared to unidentified items that were studied. Similar to previous work highlighting accurate recognition without retrieval awareness, test items that were not identified, but correctly endorsed as “old,” elicited a negative posterior old/new effect (i.e., N300). In contrast, test items that were identified and correctly endorsed as “old,” elicited the classic positive frontal old/new effect (i.e., FN400). Importantly, both of these effects were elicited under conditions when participants used perceptual information to make recognition decisions. Conceptual information elicited very different ERPs than perceptual information, showing that the informational wealth of pictures can evoke multiple routes to recognition even without awareness of memory retrieval. These results are discussed within the context of current theories regarding theN300 and theFN400.


★ Recent theory posits that implicit memory influences explicit recognition decisions. ★ Picture recognition-without-identification uses perceptual and conceptual information. ★ ERPs helped examine processes behind picture recognition-without-identification. ★ Distinct ERPs were found for accurate recognition with and without awareness.

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