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Fluency and Context in Recognition Memory

Project Description

This project relates to a sort of ‘memory illusion’: On a recognition memory test, increasing the perceptual fluency of a test cue increases the likelihood that the word will be endorsed as ‘familiar’, even if it hasn’t been seen in the study phase (and therefore should have been called ‘new’). This effect is often interpreted as the misattribution of fluency to memory, as if participants infer ‘I processed that item quickly, therefore I must have seen it in the recent past’, as when a familiar face ‘pops out’ of a crowd. When words are used as stimuli, this memory illusion can be induced using masked, subliminal repetition primes during the test phase (e.g., ‘horse’ flashed briefly before the test word ‘HORSE’; Jacoby & Whitehouse, 1989; Woollams, Taylor, Karayanidis, & Henson, 2008).

Recently, however, we have found that masked conceptual primes (e.g., ‘cow’ flashed briefly before ‘HORSE’) do not affect familiarity, but instead increase correct ‘remember’ responses, meaning that participants are more likely to correctly recollect that the word has been studied (Taylor & Henson, 2012; Taylor, Buratto, & Henson, 2013; Li, Taylor, Wang, & Guo, 2017). This conceptual priming effect on recollection does not appear to be an illusion, since it only increases recollection for studied items (i.e., hits, not false alarms). Instead, conceptual primes may help reinstate the semantic context that was activated by the target word in the study phase, which in turn makes recollection more likely.

This PhD project will use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), electroencephalography (EEG), and behavioural methods to investigate the cognitive and neural mechanisms underlying the effects of masked priming on recognition memory and the implications for our understanding of familiarity and recollection.

For international students we also offer a unique 4 year PhD programme that gives you the opportunity to undertake an accredited Teaching Certificate whilst carrying out an independent research project across a range of biological, medical and health sciences. For more information please visit

Funding Notes

Candidates are expected to hold (or be about to obtain) a minimum upper second class honours degree or equivalent in a related area cognitive neuroscience, psychology, neuroscience or bachelor’s degree in a computational field engineering or computer science with a master’s degree in a related field. Candidates with experience in neuroimaging are encouraged to apply.

This project has a Band 2 fee. Details of our different fee bands can be found on our website (View Website). For information on how to apply for this project, please visit the Faculty of Biology, Medicine and Health Doctoral Academy website (View Website).


Jacoby, LL & Whitehouse, K. (1989). An illusion of memory: False recognition influenced by unconscious perception. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 118(2), 126-135.
Li, B, Taylor, JR, Wang, W, & Gao, C. (2017). Electrophysiological correlates of with fluency of different levels of processing reveal multiple contributions to recognition memory. Consciousness and Cognition, 53, 1-13.
Taylor, JR, Buratto, LG, & Henson, RN (2013). Behavioral and neural evidence for masked conceptual priming of recollection. Cortex, 49 (6), 1511-1525.
Taylor, JR, & Henson, RN (2012). Could masked conceptual primes increase recollection? The subtleties of measuring recollection and familiarity in recognition memory. Neuropsychologia, 50 (13), 3027-3040.
Woollams, AM, Taylor, JR, Karayanidis, F, & Henson, RN. (2008). Event-related potentials associated with masked priming of test cues reveal multiple potential contributions to recognition memory. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 20(6): 1114-29.

How good is research at University of Manchester in Psychology, Psychiatry and Neuroscience?

FTE Category A staff submitted: 67.70

Research output data provided by the Research Excellence Framework (REF)

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