"P300" and memory: Individual differences in the von Restorff effect

Demetrios Karis, Monica Fabiani, Emanuel Donchin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Event-related brain potentials (ERPs) were elicited by words in a free recall paradigm that included a novel item. The P300 component of the ERP is elicited by novel, task-relevant events, and we tested the hypothesis that P300 is a manifestation of the cognitive processing invoked during "context updating." If the degree to which current representations in working memory need revision is related to P300 amplitude, then the P300 elicited by a given item should be related to the ability to recall that item on a subsequent test. Forty lists were presented to 12 subjects in each of two sessions. The lists were 15 words long, and 1 word, in position 6 through 10, was "isolated" by changing its size. Most subjects recalled these isolated words more often than other words in the same positions (von Restorff effect), and these words also elicited larger P300s than other words. Analysis of variance on the component scores from a principal components analysis revealed that words recalled had a larger amplitude P300 (on initial presentation) than words not recalled. Striking individual differences emerged, and there were strong relationships between the von Restorff effect, overall recall performance, mnemonic strategies, and the association between components of the ERP and recall performance. The overall recall performance of subjects who reported simple (rote) mnemonic strategies was low, but they showed a high von Restorff effect. For these subjects the amplitude of the P300 elicited by words during initial presentation predicted later recall. In contrast, subjects who reported complex mnemonic strategies remembered a high percentage of words and did not show a von Restorff effect. For these subjects P300 did not predict later recall, although a later "slow wave" component of the ERP did. The initial response to isolated items was the same for all subjects (a large P300), and all subjects recognized the isolates faster than other words in a recognition test given at the end of each session. The subjects in whom P300 did not predict recall reported mnemonic strategies that involved organizing the material. These strategies continue long after the time period reflected by P300 (600 msec). Because they were so effective they may have overshadowed the relationship between P300 and recall, which is based on the initial encoding of an event. Our interpretations were further confirmed and clarified from data obtained in a final grand recall and in the recognition test.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)177-216
Number of pages40
JournalCognitive Psychology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 1984

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Artificial Intelligence


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