Neural correlates of contextual cueing are modulated by explicit learning

Carmen E. Westerberg, Brennan B. Miller, Paul J. Reber, Neal J. Cohen, Ken A. Paller

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Contextual cueing refers to the facilitated ability to locate a particular visual element in a scene due to prior exposure to the same scene. This facilitation is thought to reflect implicit learning, as it typically occurs without the observer's knowledge that scenes repeat. Unlike most other implicit learning effects, contextual cueing can be impaired following damage to the medial temporal lobe. Here we investigated neural correlates of contextual cueing and explicit scene memory in two participant groups. Only one group was explicitly instructed about scene repetition. Participants viewed a sequence of complex scenes that depicted a landscape with five abstract geometric objects. Superimposed on each object was a letter T or L rotated left or right by 90°. Participants responded according to the target letter (T) orientation. Responses were highly accurate for all scenes. Response speeds were faster for repeated versus novel scenes. The magnitude of this contextual cueing did not differ between the two groups. Also, in both groups repeated scenes yielded reduced hemodynamic activation compared with novel scenes in several regions involved in visual perception and attention, and reductions in some of these areas were correlated with response-time facilitation. In the group given instructions about scene repetition, recognition memory for scenes was superior and was accompanied by medial temporal and more anterior activation. Thus, strategic factors can promote explicit memorization of visual scene information, which appears to engage additional neural processing beyond what is required for implicit learning of object configurations and target locations in a scene.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3439-3447
Number of pages9
Issue number12
StatePublished - Oct 2011


  • Explicit memory
  • FMRI
  • Implicit memory
  • Visual scene perception

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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