Why are people sometimes able to recall associations in exquisite detail while at other times left frustrated by the deficiencies of memory? Although this apparent fickleness of memory has been extensively studied by investigating factors that build strong memory traces, researchers know less about whether memory success also depends on cognitive states that are in place when a cue is encountered. Motivating this possibility, neurocomputational models propose that the hippocampus's capacity to support associative recollection (pattern completion) is biased by persistent neurochemical states, which can be elicited by exposure to familiarity and novelty. We investigated these models' behavioral implications by assessing how recent familiarity influences different memory-retrieval processes. We found that recent familiarity selectively benefitted associative memory (Experiment 1) and that this effect decayed over seconds (Experiment 2), consistent with the timescale of hippocampal neuromodulation. Thus, we show that basic memory computations can be shaped by a subtle, biologically motivated manipulation.
Keywords: acetylcholine; cognition; memory; novelty; open data; open materials.