Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
A common assertion is that semantic memory emerges from episodic memory, shedding the distinctive contexts associated with episodes over time and/or repeated instances. Some semantic concepts, however, may retain their episodic origins or acquire episodic information during life experiences. The current study examined this hypothesis by investigating the ERP correlates of autobiographically significant (AS) concepts, that is, semantic concepts that are associated with vivid episodic memories. We inferred the contribution of semantic and episodic memory to AS concepts using the amplitudes of the N400 and late positive component, respectively. We compared famous names that easily brought to mind episodic memories (high AS names) against equally famous names that did not bring such recollections to mind (low AS names) on a semantic task (fame judgment) and an episodic task (recognition memory). Compared with low AS names, high AS names were associated with increased amplitude of the late positive component in both tasks. Moreover, in the recognition task, this effect of AS was highly correlated with recognition confidence. In contrast, the N400 component did not differentiate the high versus low AS names but, instead, was related to the amount of general knowledge participants had regarding each name. These results suggest that semantic concepts high in AS, such as famous names, have an episodic component and are associated with similar brain processes to those that are engaged by episodic memory. Studying AS concepts may provide unique insights into how episodic and semantic memory interact.