A contextual binding theory of episodic memory: systems consolidation reconsidered

Nat Rev Neurosci. 2019 Jun;20(6):364-375. doi: 10.1038/s41583-019-0150-4.


Episodic memory reflects the ability to recollect the temporal and spatial context of past experiences. Episodic memories depend on the hippocampus but have been proposed to undergo rapid forgetting unless consolidated during offline periods such as sleep to neocortical areas for long-term storage. Here, we propose an alternative to this standard systems consolidation theory (SSCT) - a contextual binding account - in which the hippocampus binds item-related and context-related information. We compare these accounts in light of behavioural, lesion, neuroimaging and sleep studies of episodic memory and contend that forgetting is largely due to contextual interference, episodic memory remains dependent on the hippocampus across time, contextual drift produces post-encoding activity and sleep benefits memory by reducing contextual interference.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Hippocampus / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Memory, Episodic*
  • Mental Recall / physiology*
  • Sleep / physiology*