Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
This study investigated context-dependent episodic memory retrieval. An influential idea in the memory literature is that performance benefits when the retrieval context overlaps with the original encoding context. However, such memory facilitation may not be driven by the encoding–retrieval overlap per se but by the presence of diagnostic features in the reinstated context that discriminate the target episode from competing episodes. To test this prediction, the encoding–retrieval overlap and the diagnostic value of the context were manipulated in a novel associative recognition memory task. Participants were asked to memorize word pairs presented together with diagnostic (unique) and nondiagnostic (shared) background scenes. At test, participants recognized the word pairs in the presence and absence of the previously encoded contexts. Behavioral data show facilitated memory performance in the presence of the original context but, importantly, only when the context was diagnostic of the target episode. The electrophysiological data reveal an early anterior ERP encoding–retrieval overlap effect that tracks the cost associated with having nondiagnostic contexts present at retrieval, that is, shared by multiple previous episodes, and a later posterior encoding–retrieval overlap effect that reflects facilitated access to the target episode during retrieval in diagnostic contexts. Taken together, our results underscore the importance of the diagnostic value of the context and suggest that context-dependent episodic memory effects are multiple determined.