Retrieval orientation alters neural activity during autobiographical memory recollection

Neuroimage. 2019 Oct 1;199:534-544. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2019.05.077. Epub 2019 May 30.


When an autobiographical memory is retrieved, the underlying memory representation is constructed by flexibly activating a broad neural network. As such, the content used to reconstruct a memory can bias activity within this neural network. Here, we tested the hypothesis that focusing on the conceptual and contextual aspects of a memory to construct a memory representation will recruit distinct neural subsystems. To test this hypothesis, we measured neural activity as participants retrieved memories under retrieval orientations that biased remembering towards these elements of a past autobiographical experience. In an MRI scanner, participants first retrieved autobiographical memories and then were re-oriented towards the conceptual or contextual elements of that memory. They then used this re-oriented content (conceptual or contextual elements) to access and elaborate upon a new autobiographical memory. Confirming our hypothesis, we found a neural dissociation between these retrieval orientation conditions that aligned with established models of memory. We also found evidence that this neural dissociation was most prominent when the re-oriented mnemonic content was used to access a new memory. Altogether, the reported results provide critical insight into how and when retrieval orientations alter neural support for autobiographical memory retrieval and inform on the neural organization of autobiographical knowledge.

Keywords: Autobiographical memory; Conceptual retrieval; Contextual retrieval; Retrieval orientation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Brain Mapping / methods*
  • Cerebral Cortex / diagnostic imaging
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Memory, Episodic*
  • Mental Recall / physiology*
  • Nerve Net / diagnostic imaging
  • Nerve Net / physiology*
  • Young Adult