The neural basis of the butcher-on-the-bus phenomenon: When a face seems familiar but is not remembered

Galit Yovel, Ken A. Paller*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

201 Scopus citations


A common distinction in contemporary research on episodic memory is between familiarity, an unsubstantiated impression that an event was experienced previously, and recollection, remembering some information plus the spatiotemporal context of the episode in which it was acquired. The epitome of pure familiarity - the butcher-on-the-bus phenomenon - occurs when one believes that a person is familiar (often upon seeing their face in an atypical context) while failing to recall any information about that person whatsoever. Prior research on familiarity and recollection has relied on verbal material. Whereas word meanings and pronunciations are well learned in advance, here we produced pure familiarity and recollection using photographs of faces never seen before the experiment. When participants recognized a face, recollection was inferred if they also remembered either the occupation associated with that face earlier in the experiment or any other episodic detail. Pure familiarity was inferred when recognition occurred in the absence of any such contextual retrieval. Analyses of brain potentials recorded during initial encoding showed that right-sided neural activity predicted subsequent face familiarity, whereas bilateral potentials predicted subsequent face recollection. Results during memory testing were inconsistent with the popular idea that familiarity is generically indexed by reduced frontal N400-like potentials. Instead, both memory experiences were associated with bilateral, parietal-maximum brain potentials, although with smaller amplitudes and for a shorter duration for familiarity. These similarities between electrophysiological correlates of pure familiarity and recollection suggest that familiarity with faces may arise by virtue of a subset of the neural processing responsible for recollection.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)789-800
Number of pages12
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2004


  • ERPs
  • Familiarity
  • Memory for faces
  • Recollection

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neurology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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