Should context hold a special place in hippocampal memory?

Michael R. Dulas, Hillary Schwarb, Corinne N. Cannavale, Neal J. Cohen

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Episodic memory research has often focused on the role of the hippocampus in binding items to contexts, highlighting a privileged, or special, role for context in relational memory representations. In the present review, we ask whether context is indeed special to relational memory and hippocampal processing, or whether the hippocampus is engaged in binding all types of relational information, not limited to just context. We survey the evidence demonstrating the necessity for hippocampal processing in item-context binding and context-guided behavior. Then, we discuss evidence that the hippocampus is critical for relational binding beyond item-context, including item-item relations, as well as high-resolution single item memory, and pattern separation. This view is crucial to understanding the role of the hippocampus, not just in episodic memory, but also in guiding in-the-moment processing beyond the constraints of a context-centric view of hippocampal function. We argue that, while the hippocampus is indeed critical for item-context binding, the hippocampus is not limited by context and that context is just one of the many relations the hippocampus can bind and use for the organization of relational information, all in service of flexible cognition. We conclude that while the hippocampus is special to context, context is not special to the hippocampus.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Context of Cognition
Subtitle of host publicationEmerging Perspectives
EditorsKara D. Federmeier, Lili Sahakyan
PublisherAcademic Press Inc.
Number of pages35
ISBN (Print)9780323901352
StatePublished - Jan 2021

Publication series

NamePsychology of Learning and Motivation - Advances in Research and Theory
ISSN (Print)0079-7421


  • Context memory
  • Flexible cognition
  • Hippocampus
  • Memory organization
  • Relational memory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology


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