Experiencing surprise: the temporal dynamics of its impact on memory

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To efficiently process information, the brain shifts between encoding and retrieval states, prioritizing bottom-up or top-down processing accordingly. Expectation violation before or during learning has been shown to trigger an adaptive encoding mechanism, resulting in better memory for unexpected events. Using fMRI, we explored (1) whether this encoding mechanism is also triggered during retrieval, and if so, (2) what the temporal dynamics of its mnemonic consequences are. Male and female participants studied object images, then, with new objects, they learned a contingency between a cue and a semantic category. Rule-abiding (expected) and violating (unexpected) targets and similar foils were used at test. We found interactions between previous and current similar events' expectation, such that when an expected event followed a similar but unexpected event, its performance was boosted, underpinned by activation in the hippocampus, midbrain, and occipital cortex. In contrast, a sequence of two unexpected similar events also triggered occipital engagement; however, this did not enhance memory performance. Taken together, our findings suggest that when the goal is to retrieve, encountering surprising events engages an encoding mechanism, supported by bottom-up processing, that may enhance memory for future related events. SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT Optimizing the balance between new learning and the retrieval of existing knowledge is an ongoing process, at the core of human cognition. Previous research into memory encoding suggests experiencing surprise leads to the prioritization of the learning of new memories, forming an adaptive encoding mechanism. We examined whether this mechanism is also engaged when the current goal is to retrieve information. Our results demonstrate that an expectation-driven shift toward an encoding state, supported by enhanced perceptual processing, is beneficial for the correct identification of subsequent expected similar events. These findings have important implications for our understanding of the temporal dynamics of the adaptive encoding of information into memory.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)6435-6444
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Neuroscience
Issue number33
Publication statusPublished - 17 Aug 2022


  • Brain/diagnostic imaging
  • Brain Mapping
  • Female
  • Hippocampus/physiology
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Memory/physiology
  • Semantics


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