What we remember is shaped by what we already know. For example, remembering the angelfish from a recent aquarium visit is easier for those who already know what angelfish are and know things about them. In addition to facilitating memory retrieval of specific items, prior knowledge also supports memory by providing an overarching organizational structure for new information. Here, we show how expert knowledge leads birdwatchers to organize birds based on conceptual features, in contrast to novices who organize birds based on perceptual features. In turn, experts’ organizational structure supports memory by reducing interference typically caused by high overlap among items, even when to-be-remembered birds were unfamiliar species. These findings demonstrate how the organization of generalized knowledge promotes memory.Abstract
The influence of prior knowledge on memory is ubiquitous, making the specific mechanisms of this relationship difficult to disentangle. Here, we show that expert knowledge produces a fundamental shift in the way that interitem similarity (i.e., the perceived resemblance between items in a set) biases episodic recognition. Within a group of expert birdwatchers and matched controls, we characterized the psychological similarity space for a set of well-known local species and a set of less familiar, nonlocal species. In experts, interitem similarity was influenced most strongly by taxonomic features, whereas in controls, similarity judgments reflected bird color. In controls, perceived episodic oldness during a recognition memory task increased along with measures of global similarity between items, consistent with classic models of episodic recognition. Surprisingly, for experts, high global similarity did not drive oldness signals. Instead, for local birds memory tracked the availability of species-level name knowledge, whereas for nonlocal birds, it was mediated by the organization of generalized conceptual space. These findings demonstrate that episodic memory in experts can benefit from detailed subcategory knowledge, or, lacking that, from the overall relational structure of concepts. Expertise reshapes psychological similarity space, helping to resolve mnemonic separation challenges arising from high interitem overlap. Thus, even in the absence of knowledge about item-specific details or labels, the presence of generalized knowledge appears to support episodic recognition in domains of expertise by altering the typical relationship between psychological similarity and memory.