Research into the neural underpinnings of memory formation has focused on the encoding of familiar verbal information. Here, we address how the brain supports the encoding of novel information that does not have meaning. Electrical brain activity was recorded from the scalps of healthy young adults while they performed an incidental encoding task (syllable judgments) on separate series of words and “nonwords” (nonsense letter strings that are orthographically legal and pronounceable). Memory for the items was then probed with a recognition memory test. For words as well as nonwords, event-related potentials differed depending on whether an item would subsequently be remembered or forgotten. However, the polarity and timing of the effect varied across item type. For words, subsequently remembered items showed the usually observed positive-going, frontally distributed modulation from around 600 msec after word onset. For nonwords, by contrast, a negative-going, spatially widespread modulation predicted encoding success from 1000 msec onward. Nonwords also showed a modulation shortly after item onset. These findings imply that the brain supports the encoding of familiar and unfamiliar letter strings in qualitatively different ways, including the engagement of distinct neural activity at different points in time. The processing of semantic attributes plays an important role in the encoding of words and the associated positive frontal modulation.

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