Experiencing surprise: the temporal dynamics of its impact on memory

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To efficiently process information, the brain shifts between encoding and retrieval states, prioritising bottom-up or top-down processing accordingly. Expectation violation before or during learning has been shown to trigger an adaptive encoding mechanism, resulting in better memory for unexpected events. Using fMRI we explored (1) whether this encoding mechanism is also triggered during retrieval, and if so, (2) what the temporal dynamics of its mnemonic consequences are. Male and female participants studied object images, then, with new objects, they learned a contingency between a cue and a semantic category. Rule-abiding (expected) and violating (unexpected) targets and similar foils were used at test. We found interactions between previous and current similar events’ expectation, such that when an expected event followed a similar but unexpected event, its performance was boosted, underpinned by activation in the hippocampus, midbrain, and occipital cortex. In contrast, a sequence of two unexpected similar events also triggered occipital engagement, however, this did not enhance memory performance. Taken together, our findings suggest that when the goal is to retrieve, encountering surprising events engages an encoding mechanism, supported by bottom-up processing, that may enhance memory for future related events.

Bibliographical metadata

Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Neuroscience
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 19 Apr 2022