Repeated testing leads to improved long-term memory retention compared to repeated study, but the mechanism underlying this improvement remains controversial. In this work, we test the hypothesis that retrieval practice benefits subsequent recall by reducing competition from related memories. This hypothesis implies that the degree of reduction in competition between retrieval practice attempts should predict subsequent memory for practiced items. To test this prediction, we collected electroencephalography (EEG) data across two sessions. In the first session, participants practiced selectively retrieving exemplars from superordinate semantic categories (high competition), as well as retrieving the names of the superordinate categories from exemplars (low competition). In the second session, participants repeatedly studied and were tested on Swahili-English vocabulary. One week after session two, participants were again tested on the vocabulary. We trained a within-subject classifier on the data from session one to distinguish high and low competition states. We then used this classifier to measure the change in competition across multiple successful retrieval practice attempts in the second session. The degree to which competition decreased for a given vocabulary word predicted whether it was subsequently remembered in the third session. These results are consistent with the hypothesis that repeated testing improves retention by reducing competition.
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