Event-related potentials (ERPs) were employed to investigate whether brain activity elicited by retrieval cues in a memory test varies according to the encoding task undertaken at study. Two recognition memory test blocks were administered, preceded, in one case, by a “shallow” study task (alphabetic judgement) and, in the other case, by a “deep” task (sentence generation). ERPs elicited by the new words in each test block differed, the ERPs elicited in the block following the shallow study task exhibiting the more positive-going waveforms. This finding was taken as evidence that subjects adopt different “retrieval sets” when attempting to retrieve items that had been encoded in terms of alphabetic versus semantic attributes. Differences between the ERPs elicited by correctly classified old and new words (old/new effects) also varied with encoding task. The effects for deeply studied words resembled those found in previous ERP studies of recognition memory, whereas old/new effects for shallowly studied words were confined to a late-onsetting, right frontal positivity. Together, the findings indicate that the depth of study processing influences two kinds of memory-related neural activity, associated with memory search operations, and the processing of retrieved information, respectively.

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