Knowledge supports memory retrieval through familiarity, not recollection

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Abstract

Semantic memory, or general knowledge of the world, guides learning and supports the formation and retrieval of new episodic memories. Behavioral evidence suggests that this knowledge effect is supported by recollection—a more controlled form of memory retrieval generally accompanied by contextual details—to a greater degree than familiarity—a more automatic form of memory retrieval generally absent of contextual details. In the current study, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to investigate the role that regions associated with recollection and familiarity play in retrieving recent instances of known (e.g., The Summer Olympic Games are held four years apart) and unknown (e.g., A flaky deposit found in port bottles is beeswing) statements. Our results revealed a surprising pattern: Episodic retrieval of known statements recruited regions associated with familiarity, but not recollection. Instead, retrieval of unknown statements recruited regions associated with recollection. These data, in combination with quicker reaction times for the retrieval of known than unknown statements, suggest that known statements can be successfully retrieved on the basis of familiarity, whereas unknown statements were retrieved on the basis of recollection. Our results provide insight into how knowledge influences episodic retrieval and demonstrate the role of neuroimaging in providing insights into cognitive processes in the absence of explicit behavioral responses.

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