The effect of scene context on episodic object recognition: Parahippocampal cortex mediates memory encoding and retrieval success

Scott M. Hayes, Lynn Nadel, Lee Ryan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

131 Scopus citations


Previous research has investigated intentional retrieval of contextual information and contextual influences on object identification and word recognition, yet few studies have investigated context effects in episodic memory for objects. To address this issue, unique objects embedded in a visually rich scene or on a white background were presented to participants. At test, objects were presented either in the original scene or on a white background. A series of behavioral studies with young adults demonstrated a context shift decrement (CSD) - decreased recognition performance when context is changed between encoding and retrieval. The CSD was not attenuated by encoding or retrieval manipulations, suggesting that binding of object and context may be automatic. A final experiment explored the neural correlates of the CSD, using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging. Parahippocampal cortex (PHC) activation (right greater than left) during incidental encoding was associated with subsequent memory of objects in the context shift condition. Greater activity in right PHC was also observed during successful recognition of objects previously presented in a scene. Finally, a subset of regions activated during scene encoding, such as bilateral PHC, was reactivated when the object was presented on a white background at retrieval. Although participants were not required to intentionally retrieve contextual information, the results suggest that PHC may reinstate visual context to mediate successful episodic memory retrieval. The CSD is attributed to automatic and obligatory binding of object and context. The results suggest that PHC is important not only for processing of scene information, but also plays a role in successful episodic memory encoding and retrieval. These findings are consistent with the view that spatial information is stored in the hippocampal complex, one of the central tenets of Multiple Trace Theory.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)873-889
Number of pages17
Issue number9
StatePublished - 2007


  • Context
  • Episodic memory
  • Hippocampus
  • Multiple trace theory
  • Parahippocampal gyrus

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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