The representational account of memory envisages perception and memory to be on a continuum rather than in discretely divided brain systems [Bussey, T. J., & Saksida, L. M. Memory, perception, and the ventral visual-perirhinal-hippocampal stream: Thinking outside of the boxes. Hippocampus, 17, 898–908, 2007]. We tested this account using a novel between-group design with young grapheme-color synesthetes, older adults, and young controls. We investigated how the disparate sensory-perceptual abilities between these groups translated into associative memory performance for visual stimuli that do not induce synesthesia. ROI analyses of the entire ventral visual stream showed that associative retrieval (a pair-associate retrieved in the absence of a visual stimulus) yielded enhanced activity in young and older adults' visual regions relative to synesthetes, whereas associative recognition (deciding whether a visual stimulus was the correct pair-associate) was characterized by enhanced activity in synesthetes' visual regions relative to older adults. Whole-brain analyses at associative retrieval revealed an effect of age in early visual cortex, with older adults showing enhanced activity relative to synesthetes and young adults. At associative recognition, the group effect was reversed: Synesthetes showed significantly enhanced activity relative to young and older adults in early visual regions. The inverted group effects observed between retrieval and recognition indicate that reduced sensitivity in visual cortex (as in aging) comes with increased activity during top–down retrieval and decreased activity during bottom–up recognition, whereas enhanced sensitivity (as in synesthesia) shows the opposite pattern. Our results provide novel evidence for the direct contribution of perceptual mechanisms to visual associative memory based on the examples of synesthesia and aging.

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