Two experiments investigated the processes underlying the picture superiority effect on recognition memory. Studied pictures were associated with higher accuracy than studied words, regardless of whether test stimuli were words (Experiment 1) or pictures (Experiment 2). Event-related brain potentials (ERPs) recorded during test suggested that the 300–500 msec FN400 old/new effect, hypothesized to be related to familiarity-based recognition, benefited from study/test congruity, such that it was larger when study and test format remained constant than when they differed. The 500–800 msec parietal old/new effect, hypothesized to be related to recollection, benefited from studying pictures, regardless of test format. The parallel between the accuracy and parietal ERP results suggests that picture superiority may arise from encoding the distinctive attributes of pictures in a manner that enhances their later recollection. Furthermore, when words were tested, opposite effects of studying words versus studying pictures were observed on the FN400 (word > picture) versus parietal (picture > word) old/new effects—providing strong evidence for a crossover interaction between these components that is consistent with a dual-process perspective.

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