Mechanisms supporting superior source memory for familiar items: A multi-voxel pattern analysis study

Jordan Poppenk, Kenneth A. Norman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

23 Scopus citations


Recent cognitive research has revealed better source memory performance for familiar relative to novel stimuli. Here we consider two possible explanations for this finding. The source memory advantage for familiar stimuli could arise because stimulus novelty induces attention to stimulus features at the expense of contextual processing, resulting in diminished overall levels of contextual processing at study for novel (vs. familiar) stimuli. Another possibility is that stimulus information retrieved from long-term memory (LTM) provides scaffolding that facilitates the formation of item-context associations. If contextual features are indeed more effectively bound to familiar (vs. novel) items, the relationship between contextual processing at study and subsequent source memory should be stronger for familiar items. We tested these possibilities by applying multi-voxel pattern analysis (MVPA) to a recently collected functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) dataset, with the goal of measuring contextual processing at study and relating it to subsequent source memory performance. Participants were scanned with fMRI while viewing novel proverbs, repeated proverbs (previously novel proverbs that were shown in a pre-study phase), and previously known proverbs in the context of one of two experimental tasks. After scanning was complete, we evaluated participants' source memory for the task associated with each proverb. Drawing upon fMRI data from the study phase, we trained a classifier to detect on-task processing (i.e., how strongly was the correct task set activated). On-task processing was greater for previously known than novel proverbs and similar for repeated and novel proverbs. However, both within and across participants, the relationship between on-task processing and subsequent source memory was stronger for repeated than novel proverbs and similar for previously known and novel proverbs. Finally, focusing on the repeated condition, we found that higher levels of hippocampal activity during the pre-study phase, which we used as an index of episodic encoding, led to a stronger relationship between on-task processing at study and subsequent memory. Together, these findings suggest different mechanisms may be primarily responsible for superior source memory for repeated and previously known stimuli. Specifically, they suggest that prior stimulus knowledge enhances memory by boosting the overall level of contextual processing, whereas stimulus repetition enhances the probability that contextual features will be successfully bound to item features. Several possible theoretical explanations for this pattern are discussed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3015-3026
Number of pages12
Issue number13
StatePublished - Nov 2012

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


  • Episodic memory
  • FMRI
  • Multi-voxel pattern analysis (MVPA)
  • Novelty
  • Prior knowledge
  • Repetition


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