The ERP correlates of self-knowledge: Are assessments of one’s past, present, and future traits closer to semantic or episodic memory?

Annick Tanguay, Lauren Benton, Lorenza Romio, Carolin Sievers, Patrick S. R. Davidson, Louis Renoult

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Self-knowledge concerns one’s own preferences and personality. It pertains to the self (similar to episodic memory), yet does not concern events. It is factual (like semantic memory), but also idiosyncratic. For these reasons, it is unclear where self-knowledge might fall on a continuum in relation to semantic and episodic memory. In this study, we aimed to compare the event-related potential (ERP) correlates of self-knowledge to those of semantic and episodic memory, using N400 and Late Positive Component (LPC) as proxies for semantic and episodic processing, respectively. We considered an additional factor: time perspective. Temporally distant selves have been suggested to be more semantic compared to the present self, but thinking about one’s past and future selves may also engage episodic memory. Twenty-eight adults answered whether traits (e.g., persistent) were true of most people holding an occupation (e.g. soldiers; semantic memory condition), or true of themselves 5 years ago, in the present, or 5 years from now (past, present, and future self-knowledge conditions). The study ended with an episodic recognition memory task for previously seen traits. Present self-knowledge produced mean LPC amplitudes at posterior parietal sites that fell between semantic and episodic memory. Mean LPC amplitudes for past and future self-knowledge were greater than for semantic memory, and not significantly different from episodic memory. Mean N400 amplitudes for the self-knowledge conditions were smaller than for semantic memory at sagittal sites. However, this N400 effect was not separable from a preceding P200 effect at these same electrode sites. This P200 effect can be interpreted as reflecting the greater emotional salience of self as compared to general knowledge, which may have facilitated semantic processing. Overall, our findings are consistent with a distinction between knowledge of others and self-knowledge, but the closeness of self-knowledge’s neural correlates to either semantic or episodic memory appears to depend to some extent on time perspective.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)65-83
Number of pages19
Early online date10 Nov 2017
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2018


  • Personal semantics
  • Self-knowledge
  • Episodic memory
  • Semantic memory
  • Time perspective
  • ERPs
  • N400
  • LPC

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