The spectro-contextual encoding and retrieval theory of episodic memory

Andrew J. Watrous, Arne D. Ekstrom

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

39 Scopus citations


The spectral fingerprint hypothesis, which posits that different frequencies of oscillations underlie different cognitive operations, provides one account for how interactions between brain regions support perceptual and attentive processes (Siegel et al., 2012). Here, we explore and extend this idea to the domain of human episodic memory encoding and retrieval. Incorporating findings from the synaptic to cognitive levels of organization, we argue that spectrally precise cross-frequency coupling and phase-synchronization promote the formation of hippocampal-neocortical cell assemblies that form the basis for episodic memory.We suggest that both cell assembly firing patterns as well as the global pattern of brain oscillatory activity within hippocampal-neocortical networks represents the contents of a particular memory. Drawing upon the ideas of context reinstatement and multiple trace theory, we argue that memory retrieval is driven by internal and/or external factors which recreate these frequency-specific oscillatory patterns which occur during episodic encoding.These ideas are synthesized into a novel model of episodic memory (the spectrocontextual encoding and retrieval theory, or "SCERT") that provides several testable predictions for future research.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number75
JournalFrontiers in Human Neuroscience
Issue number1 FEB
StatePublished - Feb 18 2014
Externally publishedYes


  • Cell assembly
  • Context reinstatement
  • Cross-frequency coupling
  • Episodic memory
  • Hippocampus
  • Neocortex
  • Oscillations
  • Phase-synchronization

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Neurology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Biological Psychiatry
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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