Distributed representations in memory: insights from functional brain imaging

Annu Rev Psychol. 2012:63:101-28. doi: 10.1146/annurev-psych-120710-100344. Epub 2011 Sep 13.


Forging new memories for facts and events, holding critical details in mind on a moment-to-moment basis, and retrieving knowledge in the service of current goals all depend on a complex interplay between neural ensembles throughout the brain. Over the past decade, researchers have increasingly utilized powerful analytical tools (e.g., multivoxel pattern analysis) to decode the information represented within distributed functional magnetic resonance imaging activity patterns. In this review, we discuss how these methods can sensitively index neural representations of perceptual and semantic content and how leverage on the engagement of distributed representations provides unique insights into distinct aspects of memory-guided behavior. We emphasize that, in addition to characterizing the contents of memories, analyses of distributed patterns shed light on the processes that influence how information is encoded, maintained, or retrieved, and thus inform memory theory. We conclude by highlighting open questions about memory that can be addressed through distributed pattern analyses.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping
  • Functional Neuroimaging
  • Humans
  • Memory, Episodic*
  • Memory, Short-Term / physiology*