Subliminal encoding and flexible retrieval of objects in scenes

Hippocampus. 2018 Sep;28(9):633-643. doi: 10.1002/hipo.22957. Epub 2018 May 17.


Our episodic memory stores what happened when and where in life. Episodic memory requires the rapid formation and flexible retrieval of where things are located in space. Consciousness of the encoding scene is considered crucial for episodic memory formation. Here, we question the necessity of consciousness and hypothesize that humans can form unconscious episodic memories. Participants were presented with subliminal scenes, that is, scenes invisible to the conscious mind. The scenes displayed objects at certain locations for participants to form unconscious object-in-space memories. Later, the same scenes were presented supraliminally, that is, visibly, for retrieval testing. Scenes were presented absent the objects and rotated by 90°-270° in perspective to assess the representational flexibility of unconsciously formed memories. During the test phase, participants performed a forced-choice task that required them to place an object in one of two highlighted scene locations and their eye movements were recorded. Evaluation of the eye tracking data revealed that participants remembered object locations unconsciously, irrespective of changes in viewing perspective. This effect of gaze was related to correct placements of objects in scenes, and an intuitive decision style was necessary for unconscious memories to influence intentional behavior to a significant degree. We conclude that conscious perception is not mandatory for spatial episodic memory formation.

Keywords: allocentric; consciousness; episodic memory; long-term retention; unconscious.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Awareness
  • Choice Behavior
  • Eye Movement Measurements
  • Eye Movements
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Memory, Episodic*
  • Mental Recall*
  • Pattern Recognition, Visual*
  • Psychological Tests
  • Rotation
  • Subliminal Stimulation*
  • Young Adult