We frequently encounter the same item in different contexts, and when that happens, memories of earlier encounters can get reactivated in the brain. Here we examined how these existing memories are changed as a result of such reactivation. We hypothesized that when an item's initial and subsequent neural representations overlap, this allows the initial item to become associated with novel contextual information, interfering with later retrieval of the initial context. That is, we predicted a negative relationship between representational similarity across repeated experiences of an item and subsequent source memory for the initial context. We tested this hypothesis in an fMRI study, in which objects were presented multiple times during different tasks. We measured the similarity of the neural patterns in lateral occipital cortex that were elicited by the first and second presentations of objects, and related this neural overlap score to source memory in a subsequent test. Consistent with our hypothesis, greater item-specific pattern similarity was linked to worse source memory for the initial task. Our findings suggest that the influence of novel experiences on an existing context memory depends on how reliably a shared component (i.e., same item) is represented across these episodes.
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