Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Neurobiological memory models assume memory traces are stored in neocortex, with pointers in the hippocampus, and are then reactivated during retrieval, yielding the experience of remembering. Whereas most prior neuroimaging studies on reactivation have focused on the reactivation of sets or categories of items, the current study sought to identify cortical patterns pertaining to memory for individual scenes. During encoding, participants viewed pictures of scenes paired with matching labels (e.g., “barn,” “tunnel”), and, during retrieval, they recalled the scenes in response to the labels and rated the quality of their visual memories. Using representational similarity analyses, we interrogated the similarity between activation patterns during encoding and retrieval both at the item level (individual scenes) and the set level (all scenes). The study yielded four main findings. First, in occipitotemporal cortex, memory success increased with encoding-retrieval similarity (ERS) at the item level but not at the set level, indicating the reactivation of individual scenes. Second, in ventrolateral pFC, memory increased with ERS for both item and set levels, indicating the recapitulation of memory processes that benefit encoding and retrieval of all scenes. Third, in retrosplenial/posterior cingulate cortex, ERS was sensitive to individual scene information irrespective of memory success, suggesting automatic activation of scene contexts. Finally, consistent with neurobiological models, hippocampal activity during encoding predicted the subsequent reactivation of individual items. These findings show the promise of studying memory with greater specificity by isolating individual mnemonic representations and determining their relationship to factors like the detail with which past events are remembered.