The neural basis of involuntary episodic memories.


Voluntary episodic memories require an intentional memory search, whereas involuntary episodic memories come to mind spontaneously without conscious effort. Cognitive neuroscience has largely focused on voluntary memory, leaving the neural mechanisms of involuntary memory largely unknown. We hypothesized that, because the main difference between voluntary and involuntary memory is the controlled retrieval processes required by the former, there would be greater frontal activity for voluntary than involuntary memories. Conversely, we predicted that other components of the episodic retrieval network would be similarly engaged in the two types of memory. During encoding, all participants heard sounds, half paired with pictures of complex scenes and half presented alone. During retrieval, paired and unpaired sounds were presented, panned to the left or to the right. Participants in the involuntary group were instructed to indicate the spatial location of the sound, whereas participants in the voluntary group were asked to additionally recall the pictures that had been paired with the sounds. All participants reported the incidence of their memories in a postscan session. Consistent with our predictions, voluntary memories elicited greater activity in dorsal frontal regions than involuntary memories, whereas other components of the retrieval network, including medial-temporal, ventral occipitotemporal, and ventral parietal regions were similarly engaged by both types of memories. These results clarify the distinct role of dorsal frontal and ventral occipitotemporal regions in predicting strategic retrieval and recalled information, respectively, and suggest that, although there are neural differences in retrieval, involuntary memories share neural components with established voluntary memory systems.





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Publication Info

Hall, Shana A, David C Rubin, Amanda Miles, Simon W Davis, Erik A Wing, Roberto Cabeza and Dorthe Berntsen (2014). The neural basis of involuntary episodic memories. J Cogn Neurosci, 26(10). pp. 2385–2399. 10.1162/jocn_a_00633 Retrieved from

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David C. Rubin

Juanita M. Kreps Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience

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My main research interest has been in long-term memory, especially for complex (or "real-world") stimuli. This work includes the study of autobiographical memory and oral traditions, as well as prose. I have also studied memory as it is more commonly done in experimental psychology laboratories using lists. In addition to this purely behavioral research, which I plan to continue, I work on memory in clinical populations with the aid of a National Institute of Mental Health grant to study PTSD and on the underlying neural basis of memory the aid of a National Institute of Aging grant to study autobiographical memory using fMRI.


Simon Wilton Davis

Associate Professor in Neurology

My research centers around the use of structural and functional imaging measures to study the shifts in network architecture in the aging brain. I am specifically interested in changes in how changes in structural and functional connectivity associated with aging impact the semantic retrieval of word or fact knowledge. Currently this involves asking why older adults have particular difficulty in certain kinds of semantic retrieval, despite the fact that vocabularies and knowledge stores typically improve with age.

A second line of research involves asking questions about how this semantic system is organized in young adults, understanding which helps form a basis for asking questions about older adults. To what degree are these semantic retrieval processes lateralized? What cognitive factors affect this laterality? How are brain structures like the corpus callosum involved in mediating distributed activation patterns associated with semantic retrieval? 


Roberto Cabeza

Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience

My laboratory investigates the neural correlates of memory and cognition in young and older adults using fMRI. We have three main lines of research: First, we distinguish the neural correlates of various episodic memory processes. For example, we have compared encoding vs. retrieval, item vs. source memory, recall vs. recognition, true vs. false memory, and emotional vs. nonemotional memory. We are particularly interested in the contribution of prefrontal cortex (PFC) and medial temporal lobe (MTL) subregions and their interactions. Second, we investigate similarities and differences between the neural correlates of episodic memory and other memory and cognitive functions (working, semantic, implicit, and procedural memory; attention; perception, etc.). The main goal of this cross-functional approach is to understand the contributions of brain regions shared by different cognitive functions. Finally, in both episodic memory and cross-function studies, we also examine the effects of healthy and pathological aging. Regarding episodic memory, we have linked processes differentially affected by aging (e.g., item vs. source memory, recall vs. recognition) to the effects of aging on specific PFC and MTL subregions. Regarding cross-function comparisons, we identify age-related changes in activity that are common to various functions. For example, we have found an age-related increase in bilaterality that occurs for many functions (memory, attention, language, perception, and motor) and is associated with functional compensation.

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