Task context and organization in free recall

Sean M. Polyn, Kenneth A. Norman, Michael J. Kahana

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57 Scopus citations


Prior work on organization in free recall has focused on the ways in which semantic and temporal information determine the order in which material is retrieved from memory. Tulving's theory of ecphory suggests that these organizational effects arise from the interaction of a retrieval cue with the contents of memory. Using the continual-distraction free-recall paradigm [Bjork, R. A., & Whitten, W. B. (1974). Recency-sensitive retrieval processes in long-term free recall. Cognitive Psychology, 6, 173-189] to minimize retrieval during the study period, we show that encoding task context can organize recall, suggesting that task-related information is part of the retrieval cue. We interpret these results in terms of the Context Maintenance and Retrieval model (CMR; [Polyn, S. M., Norman, K. A., & Kahana, M. J. (2009). A context maintenance and retrieval model of organizational processes in free recall. Psychological Review, 116 (1), 129-156]), in which an internal contextual representation, containing semantic, temporal, and source-related information, serves as the retrieval cue and organizes the retrieval of information from memory. We discuss these results in terms of the guided activation theory [Miller, E. K., & Cohen, J. D. (2001). An integrative theory of prefrontal cortex function. Annual Review of Neuroscience, 24, 167-202] of the role of prefrontal cortex in task performance, as well as the rich neuropsychological literature implicating prefrontal cortex in memory search (e.g., Schacter (1987). Memory, amnesia, and frontal lobe dysfunction. Psychobiology, 15, 21-36).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2158-2163
Number of pages6
Issue number11
StatePublished - Sep 2009

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


  • Episodic memory
  • Free recall
  • Memory search
  • Organization
  • Orienting task


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