Successful behavior requires actively acquiring and representing information about the environment and people, and manipulating and using those acquired representations flexibly to optimally act in and on the world. The frontal lobes have figured prominently in most accounts of flexible or goal-directed behavior, as evidenced by often-reported behavioral inflexibility in individuals with frontal lobe dysfunction. Here, we propose that the hippocampus also plays a critical role by forming and reconstructing relational memory representations that underlie flexible cognition and social behavior. There is mounting evidence that damage to the hippocampus can produce inflexible and maladaptive behavior when such behavior places high demands on the generation, recombination, and flexible use of information. This is seen in abilities as diverse as memory, navigation, exploration, imagination, creativity, decision-making, character judgments, establishing and maintaining social bonds, empathy, social discourse, and language use. Thus, the hippocampus, together with its extensive interconnections with other neural systems, supports the flexible use of information in general. Further, we suggest that this understanding has important clinical implications. Hippocampal abnormalities can produce profound deficits in real-world situations, which typically place high demands on the flexible use of information, but are not always obvious on diagnostic tools tuned to frontal lobe function. This review documents the role of the hippocampus in supporting flexible representations and aims to expand our understanding of the dynamic networks that operate as we move through and create meaning of our world.
Keywords: amnesia; flexible cognition; hippocampus; relational memory; social behavior.