Event-related potential evidence for separable automatic and controlled retrieval processes in proactive interference.


Interference between competing memories is a major source of retrieval failure, yet, surprisingly little is known about how competitive memory activation arises in the brain. One possibility is that interference during episodic retrieval might be produced by relatively automatic conceptual priming mechanisms that are independent of strategic retrieval processes. Such priming-driven interference might occur when the competing memories have strong pre-existing associations to the retrieval cue. We used ERPs to measure the neural dynamics of retrieval competition, and investigated whether the ERP correlates of interference were affected by varying task demands for selective retrieval. Participants encoded cue words that were presented either two or four times, paired either with the same or different strongly associated words across repetitions. In a subsequent test, participants either selectively recalled each cue's most recent associate, or simply judged how many times a cue had been presented, without requiring selective recall. Interference effects on test performance were only seen in the recall task. In contrast, ERPs during test revealed an early posterior positivity for high interference items that was present in both retrieval tasks. This early ERP effect likely reflects a conceptual priming-related N400 reduction when many associations to a cue were pre-activated. A later parietal positivity resembling the ERP correlate of conscious recollection was found only in the recall task. The results suggest that early effects of proactive interference are relatively automatic and independent of intentional retrieval processes, consistent with suggestions that interference can arise through conceptual priming. © 2012 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.