Neurofeedback helps to reveal a relationship between context reinstatement and memory retrieval

Megan T. deBettencourt, Nicholas B. Turk-Browne, Kenneth A. Norman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

15 Scopus citations


Theories of mental context and memory posit that successful mental context reinstatement enables better retrieval of memories from the same context, at the expense of memories from other contexts. To test this hypothesis, we had participants study lists of words, interleaved with task-irrelevant images from one category (e.g., scenes). Following encoding, participants were cued to mentally reinstate the context associated with a particular list, by thinking about the images that had appeared between the words. We measured context reinstatement by applying multivariate pattern classifiers to fMRI, and related this to performance on a free recall test that followed immediately afterwards. To increase sensitivity, we used a closed-loop neurofeedback procedure, whereby higher classifier evidence for the cued category elicited increased visibility of the images from the studied context onscreen. Our goal was to create a positive feedback loop that amplified small fluctuations in mental context reinstatement, making it easier to experimentally detect a relationship between context reinstatement and recall. As predicted, we found that greater amounts of classifier evidence were associated with better recall of words from the reinstated context, and worse recall of words from a different context. In a second experiment, we assessed the role of neurofeedback in identifying this brain-behavior relationship by presenting context images again and manipulating whether their visibility depended on classifier evidence. When neurofeedback was removed, the relationship between classifier evidence and memory retrieval disappeared. Together, these findings demonstrate a clear effect of context reinstatement on memory recall and suggest that neurofeedback can be a useful tool for characterizing brain-behavior relationships.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)292-301
Number of pages10
StatePublished - Oct 15 2019

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Neurology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


  • Free recall
  • Long-term memory
  • Real-time fMRI


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