Set-relevance determines the impact of distractors on episodic memory retrieval

J Cogn Neurosci. 2014 Sep;26(9):2070-86. doi: 10.1162/jocn_a_00601. Epub 2014 Mar 25.


We investigated the interplay between stimulus-driven attention and memory retrieval with a novel interference paradigm that engaged both systems concurrently on each trial. Participants encoded a 45-min movie on Day 1 and, on Day 2, performed a temporal order judgment task during fMRI. Each retrieval trial comprised three images presented sequentially, and the task required participants to judge the temporal order of the first and the last images ("memory probes") while ignoring the second image, which was task irrelevant ("attention distractor"). We manipulated the content relatedness and the temporal proximity between the distractor and the memory probes, as well as the temporal distance between two probes. Behaviorally, short temporal distances between the probes led to reduced retrieval performance. Distractors that at encoding were temporally close to the first probe image reduced these costs, specifically when the distractor was content unrelated to the memory probes. The imaging results associated the distractor probe temporal proximity with activation of the right ventral attention network. By contrast, the precuneus was activated for high-content relatedness between distractors and probes and in trials including a short distance between the two memory probes. The engagement of the right ventral attention network by specific types of distractors suggests a link between stimulus-driven attention control and episodic memory retrieval, whereas the activation pattern of the precuneus implicates this region in memory search within knowledge/content-based hierarchies.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Judgment / physiology*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Memory, Episodic*
  • Mental Recall / physiology*
  • Oxygen / blood
  • Parietal Lobe / blood supply
  • Parietal Lobe / physiology*
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Set, Psychology*
  • Young Adult


  • Oxygen