Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Voluntary control processes can be recruited to facilitate recollection in situations where a retrieval cue fails to automatically bring to mind a desired episodic memory. We investigated whether voluntary control processes can also stop recollection of unwanted memories that would otherwise have been automatically recollected. Participants were trained on cue–associate word-pairs, then repeatedly presented with the cue and asked to either recollect or avoid recollecting the associate, while having the event-related potential (ERP) correlate of conscious recollection measured. Halfway through the phase, some cues switched instructions so that participants had to start avoiding recall of associates they had previously repeatedly recalled, and vice versa. ERPs during recollection avoidance showed a significantly reduced positivity in the correlate of conscious recollection, and switching instructions reversed the ERP effect even for items that had been previously repeatedly recalled, suggesting that voluntary control processes can override highly practiced, automatic recollection. Avoiding recollection of particularly prepotent memories was associated with an additional, earlier ERP negativity that was separable from the later voluntary modulation of conscious recollection. The findings have implications for theories of memory retrieval by highlighting the involvement of voluntary attentional processes in controlling conscious recollection.