Retrieval aids the creation of a generalised memory trace and strengthens episode-unique information

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Generalised knowledge can adaptively guide our behaviour and help us navigate the world. In this study, we aim to test the role of memory retrieval in promoting such generalisation of memories. Retrieval is known to be a powerful memory enhancer. Both cognitive and neurobiological theories of retrieval-mediated learning propose that this benefit is due to the co-activation of related (semantic) information during retrieval, which strengthens this co-activated associative network. By doing so, retrieval might play an important role in the generalisation of the memory trace. Here, we used univariate and pattern fMRI analyses to investigate whether memory representations that undergo retrieval (vs. restudy) become generalised over time. Participants encoded scene-object pairs and either retrieved or restudied the objects over two sessions, two days apart. We analysed univariate and multivariate changes in brain activity specific to retrieval but not restudy, and tested whether predicted changes occur rapidly within a session, or evolve slowly, across the two days. Consistent with a role of retrieval in the semanticisation of memories, univariate analyses showed an increase in medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) activation across consecutive retrieval attempts, and a multivariate increase in similarity between categorically related information. In addition to this semanticisation, we also observed that retrieval strengthened the patterns unique to the original study episodes. Semantic-categorical and episode-unique strengthening both evolved slowly, across two days, and were most pronounced in parietal areas. Our findings corroborate the hypothesis that retrieval supports the creation of a generalised memory trace, and show that this strengthening does not come at the expense of episode-unique information. Active remembering thus seems to promote a stable and adaptive memory that can be flexibly used to access both contextually specific and more abstract generalised information.
Original languageEnglish
Article number115996
Number of pages12
Early online date4 Jul 2019
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2019


  • Consolidation
  • Episodic-memory
  • Hippocampus
  • Retrieval
  • Testing effect
  • mPFC

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neurology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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