Larger capacity for unconscious versus conscious episodic memory

Schneider, Else; Züst, Marc Alain; Wuethrich, Sergej; Schmidig, Flavio; Klöppel, Stefan; Wiest, Roland; Ruch, Simon; Henke, Katharina (2021). Larger capacity for unconscious versus conscious episodic memory. Current Biology, 31(16), 3551-3563.e9. Cell Press 10.1016/j.cub.2021.06.012

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Episodic memory is the memory for experienced events. A peak competence of episodic memory is the mental combination of events to infer commonalities. Inferring commonalities may proceed with and without consciousness of events. Yet what distinguishes conscious from unconscious inference? This question inspired nine experiments that featured strongly and weakly masked cartoon clips presented for unconscious and conscious inference. Each clip featured a scene with a visually impenetrable hiding place. Five animals crossed the scene one-by-one consecutively. One animal trajectory represented one event. The animals moved through the hiding place, where they might linger or not. The participants' task was to observe the animals' entrances and exits to maintain a mental record of which animals hid simultaneously. We manipulated information load to explore capacity limits. Memory of inferences was tested immediately, 3.5 or 6 min following encoding. The participants retrieved inferences well when encoding was conscious. When encoding was unconscious, the participants needed to respond intuitively. Only habitually intuitive decision makers exhibited a significant delayed retrieval of inferences drawn unconsciously. Their unconscious retrieval performance did not drop significantly with increasing information load, while conscious retrieval performance dropped significantly. A working memory network, including hippocampus, was activated during both conscious and unconscious inference and correlated with retrieval success. An episodic retrieval network, including hippocampus, was activated during both conscious and unconscious retrieval of inferences and correlated with retrieval success. Only conscious encoding/retrieval recruited additional brain regions outside these networks. Hence, levels of consciousness influenced the memories' behavioral impact, memory capacity, and the neural representational code.

Item Type:

Journal Article (Original Article)


07 Faculty of Human Sciences > Institute of Psychology > Weitere Forschungsgruppen
04 Faculty of Medicine > Department of Radiology, Neuroradiology and Nuclear Medicine (DRNN) > Institute of Diagnostic and Interventional Neuroradiology
04 Faculty of Medicine > University Psychiatric Services > University Hospital of Geriatric Psychiatry and Psychotherapy
07 Faculty of Human Sciences > Institute of Psychology
07 Faculty of Human Sciences > Institute of Psychology > Developmental Psychology

UniBE Contributor:

Schneider, Else Johanna, Züst, Marc, Wüthrich, Sergej, Schmidig, Flavio Jean, Klöppel, Stefan, Wiest, Roland Gerhard Rudi, Ruch, Simon, Henke, Katharina


600 Technology > 610 Medicine & health
100 Philosophy > 150 Psychology




Cell Press




Katharina Klink

Date Deposited:

19 Jul 2021 14:19

Last Modified:

02 Mar 2023 23:35

Publisher DOI:


PubMed ID:





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