ERP old/new effects have been associated with different subprocesses of episodic recognition memory. The notion that recollection is reflected in the left parietal old/new effect seems to be uncontested. However, an association between episodic familiarity and the mid-frontal old/new effect is not uncontroversial. It has been argued that the mid-frontal old/new effect is functionally equivalent to the N400 and hence merely reflects differences in conceptual fluency between old and new items. Therefore, it is related to episodic familiarity only in situations in which conceptual fluency covaries with familiarity. Alternatively, the old/new effect in this time window reflects an interaction of episodic familiarity and conceptual processing with each making a unique functional contribution. To test this latter account, we manipulated conceptual fluency and episodic familiarity orthogonally in an incidental recognition test: Visually presented old and new words were preceded by either conceptually related or unrelated auditory prime words. If the mid-frontal old/new effect is functionally distinguishable from conceptual priming effects, an ERP contrast reflecting pure priming (correct rejections in the related vs. unrelated condition) and a contrast reflecting priming plus familiarity (hits in the related vs. correct rejections in the unrelated condition) should differ in scalp distribution. As predicted, the pure priming contrast had a right-parietal distribution, as typically observed for the N400 effect, whereas the priming plus familiarity contrast was significantly more frontally accentuated. These findings implicate that old/new effects in this time window are driven by unique functional contributions of episodic familiarity and conceptual processing.

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