By observing the hippocampus part of the brain, which is responsible for traditional memories, neuroscientists Deborah Hannula and Charan Ranganath noted that persons giving incorrect answers still had increased activity when their eyes observed the correct answer. The prefrontal cortex (PFC), which is responsible for decision making, mirrored the behavior of the hippocampus.
So your hippocampus may have made the connection that the napkin holder is missing, but your PFC must get involved for you to realize it. "The idea is that recollection may be a two-stage process," Hannula says. "First you have retrieval of the memory, and then you have a conscious appreciation of what's been retrieved."
The study provides strong support for the idea that the hippocampus can process relational memories without a person being aware of it, says Boston University neuroscientist Howard Eichenbaum.
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