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Neuropsychologia. 2012 Mar;50(4):447-57. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2011.08.025. Epub 2011 Sep 3.

The neural dynamics of task context in free recall.

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Department of Psychology, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN 37240-7817, USA.


Multivariate pattern analysis (MVPA) is a powerful tool for relating theories of cognitive function to the neural dynamics observed while people engage in cognitive tasks. Here, we use the Context Maintenance and Retrieval model of free recall (CMR; Polyn et al., 2009a) to interpret variability in the strength of task-specific patterns of distributed neural activity as participants study and recall lists of words. The CMR model describes how temporal and source-related (here, encoding task) information combine in a contextual representation that is responsible for guiding memory search. Each studied word in the free-recall paradigm is associated with one of two encoding tasks (size and animacy) that have distinct neural representations during encoding. We find evidence for the context retrieval hypothesis central to the CMR model: Task-specific patterns of neural activity are reactivated during memory search, as the participant recalls an item previously associated with a particular task. Furthermore, we find that the fidelity of these task representations during study is related to task-shifting, the serial position of the studied item, and variability in the magnitude of the recency effect across participants. The CMR model suggests that these effects may be related to a central parameter of the model that controls the rate that an internal contextual representation integrates information from the surrounding environment.

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