Fluent conceptual processing and explicit memory for faces are electrophysiologically distinct

Joel L. Voss, Ken A. Paller*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

117 Scopus citations


Implicit memory and explicit memory are fundamentally different manifestations of memory storage in the brain. Yet, conceptual fluency driven by previous experience could theoretically be responsible for both conceptual implicit memory and aspects of explicit memory. For example, contemplating the meaning of a word might serve to speed subsequent processing of that word and also make it seem familiar. We examined electrophysiological correlates of conceptual priming with 180 celebrity faces to determine whether or not they resemble electrophysiological correlates of explicit memory. Celebrity faces are ideal for this purpose because they carry with them preexisting conceptual information (i.e., biographical facts) that can selectively be brought to mind such that conceptual processing can be manipulated systematically. In our experiment, exposure to biographical information associated with only one-half of the celebrities yielded conceptual priming for those faces, whereas all faces were perceptually primed. Conceptual priming was indexed by positive brain potentials over frontal regions from ∼250 to 500 ms. Explicit memory retrieval was associated with later brain potentials over posterior regions that were strikingly similar to potentials previously associated with pure familiarity for faces (when a face seems familiar in the absence of retrieval of any specific information about previous occurrence). Furthermore, the magnitude of conceptual priming was correlated across subjects with the amplitude of frontal but not posterior potentials, whereas the opposite was true for explicit memory. Distinct brain processes were thus associated with conceptual priming and conscious recognition of faces, thus providing a sharper focus on the border between implicit and explicit memory.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)926-933
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of Neuroscience
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jan 18 2006


  • Conceptual priming
  • ERPs
  • Episodic memory
  • Event-related potentials
  • Face memory
  • Familiarity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)


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