Electrophysiological evidence for strategically orienting retrieval toward the specific age of a memory


For over a century, memory researchers have extensively studied the differences between retrieving memories that were encoded in the remote past as opposed to recently. Although this work has largely focused on the changes that these memory traces undergo over time, an unexplored issue is whether retrieval attempts and other strategic processes might be differentially oriented in order to effectively access memories of different ages. The current study addressed this issue by instructing participants to retrieve words that were encoded either one week (remote) or about 30 minutes earlier (recent). To maximize the possibility that participants adopted distinct retrieval orientations, separate blocks of the memory test employed exclusion task procedures in which the words from only one encoding period were targeted at a given time, in the face of distractors from the other period. Event-related potentials (ERPs) elicited by correctly-rejected new items were contrasted to minimize confounding effects of retrieval success. The new-item ERPs revealed differences according to the targeted week, such that the ERPs over posterior scalp were more positive-going for the recent compared to remote blocks. Furthermore, using multiple methods, these ERP effects were dissociated from differences in difficulty across the two conditions. The findings provide novel evidence that knowledge about when a memory was initially encoded leads to differences in the adoption of retrieval processing strategies.

Brain and Cognition, 100, 41–48