Neurofeedback helps to reveal a relationship between context reinstatement and memory retrieval
Theories of mental context and memory posit that successful mental context reinstatement enables better retrieval of memories from the same context, at the expense of memories from other contexts. To test this hypothesis, we had participants study lists of words, interleaved with task-irrelevant images from one category (e.g., scenes). Following encoding, participants were cued to mentally reinstate the context associated with a particular list, by thinking about the images that had appeared between the words. We measured context reinstatement with fMRI, and related this to performance on a free recall test that followed immediately afterwards. To increase sensitivity, we used a closed-loop neurofeedback procedure, whereby higher levels of context reinstatement (measured neurally) elicited increased visibility of the images from the studied context onscreen. Our goal was to create a positive feedback loop that amplified small fluctuations in mental context reinstatement, making it easier to experimentally detect a relationship between context reinstatement and recall. As predicted, we found that higher levels of neural context reinstatement were associated with better recall of words from the reinstated context, and worse recall of words from a different context. In a second experiment, we assessed the role of neurofeedback in identifying this brain-behavior relationship by presenting context images again but manipulating whether their visibility depended on neural context reinstatement. When neurofeedback was removed, the relationship between context reinstatement and memory retrieval disappeared. Together, these findings demonstrate a clear effect of context reinstatement on memory recall and suggest that neurofeedback can be a useful tool for characterizing brain-behavior relationships.
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