Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository


Doctor of Philosophy




Stefan Köhler


In past research, investigators have often used the recognition memory paradigm to study the cognitive and neural processes that permit the ability to accurately assess whether or not stimuli are familiar. This paradigm involves presenting stimuli to participants in a study phase, and examining their later recognition of them when these stimuli are subsequently presented again in a later test phase. It is not well understood, however, whether the same mechanisms that support familiarity assessment in recognition memory also support familiarity based on general life experience (e.g., recognizing a famous celebrity in daily life). To address this, I implemented modified recognition memory paradigms for the purpose of better understanding the processes that support famous name recognition. In Chapter 2, I developed a signal-detection model that describes how people discriminate between famous and fictional names. I found that similarly to recognition memory, famous name recognition relies on graded evidence that can be modeled successfully with Gaussian distributions. In Chapter 3, I studied the contributions of semantic knowledge to famous name familiarity, with a focus on recognition experiences in which ‘names ring a bell’. I revealed that despite the fact that participants understand this recognition experience to reflect situations where names are familiar but do not provoke retrieval of any related semantic details, they still achieve above-chance performance on an occupation forced-choice task for the same names. Based on these results, I investigated in Chapter 4 whether ‘name rings a bell’ experiences engage the same brain regions as those that also support the ability to successfully retrieve semantic knowledge about famous names. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, I examined whether the brain regions that support ‘name rings a bell’ experiences overlap with those that support successful identification and correct occupation forced-choice decisions. Two brain areas that I found to be engaged during ‘name rings a bell’ responses were also engaged while participant’s successfully retrieved semantic knowledge for names, which included the left posterior middle temporal gyrus and an inferior aspect of the left ventrolateral prefrontal cortex. Overall, my thesis advances our knowledge of how feelings of familiarity for famous names relate to underlying semantic representations about them.