Human Memory Lab

Woman wearing a VR headset and using a hand controller

Research Interests

In this lab, we study human memory. Though we study a broad range of issues related to human memory processes and performance, the primary research interest in this lab is in people’s ability to show memory when they experience retrieval failure. For example, people sometimes fail to recall the information that they are searching for in memory. When experiencing such memory failure, people often still have other information available to them about the memory—information that can at times be used to make decisions with some degree of accuracy.  An example is the phenomenon recognition without identification and a seemingly similar phenomenon, recognition without recall.  We investigate the various ways that people can show memory when recall fails, and also the neural mechanisms that underlie memory that occurs when retrieval fails. In this lab, we use many methodological techniques for addressing these questions, including behavioral paradigms, virtual reality technology, brain electrophysiological techniques, mathematical model simulations, and, in collaboration with other laboratories and facilities, functional magnetic resonance imaging (or fMRI) and research with clinical populations.  

Basic Memory & Metacognition Research

Familiarity-based Recognition. One example of a form of memory that can occur in the face of retrieval failure is familiarity, which is the feeling of having experienced something before, without being able to pinpoint exactly why the feeling is occurring. One branch of research in this lab aims to study familiarity as a basis for recognition and how it operates mechanistically and how it might differ from other processes that enable recognition.  

Features that Produce Recognition when Recall Fails. One branch of research in this lab attempts to identify what features of an item or situation can produce recognition when recall fails. For example, when retrieval fails, do geometric shapes contribute to a sense of recognition with pictures and objects? Do phonemes contribute to a sense of recognition with spoken words? Can rhythm contribute to a sense of recognition with songs? Can more abstract features, such as semantic features, produce a sense of recognition when retrieval fails?

Subjective Memory Experiences that Occur During Retrieval Failure. The ability to recognize having had a prior experience with a situation when recall of the exact prior experience itself fails is related to the subjective experience of sensing that something is in memory.  Besides the feeling of familiarity, an example of one such type of subjective experience is the déjà vu experience, which occurs when one has a feeling of having experienced something before, despite evidence to the contrary. Most commonly, déjà vu occurs with places—people experience a feeling of having been somewhere before, despite knowing that they have never been there. Déjà vu may result from a memory that fails to be retrieved, as is humorously illustrated in this commercial. One branch of research in this lab aims to better understand déjà vu as a memory phenomenon, and virtual reality is one of the tools that we use in this lab to investigate this (click here for a video description).  Another example of a type of subjective memory experience that occurs during retrieval failure is the tip-of-the-tongue (TOT) phenomenon, whereby one feels that a word is in memory, but cannot currently access it. One branch of research in this lab investigates the TOT phenomenon and how it differs from other seemingly similar subjective memory experiences that occur during retrieval failure. Another branch is aimed at investigating how TOT states affect other cognitive judgments during the uncertainty of retrieval failure.  

Unconscious Recognition. Other ways that people can show memory when retrieval fails may be unconscious. At least some evidence from this lab and others suggests that people may sometimes be influenced by prior memories to choose certain items over others or to react in certain ways to situations, yet be completely unaware that situations in memory are driving those decisions. Another branch of research in our lab aims to study this ability and how it differs from conscious forms of memory that occur when retrieval fails.  

Applied Memory & Metacognition Research

Applied Science of Learning Strategies for Reinforcing Learning Outside of the Classroom. One applied line of research in our lab focuses on investigating strategies for helping students to reinforce their learning outside of the classroom. For example: Wearable Technology for Automatizing Science-based Study Strategies: Reinforcing Learning Through Intermittent Smartwatch Prompting – ScienceDirect

Investigating how Subjective Metacognitive Sensations of Memory Might be Applicable to Learning & Training Situations. One applied line of research in our lab focuses on how subjective metacognitive sensations of memory, like tip-of-the-tongue states, might sometimes be useful in educational and training settings. For example: The tip-of-the-tongue state as a form of access to information: Use of tip-of-the-tongue states for strategic adaptive test-taking – PubMed (


Representative Publications

  • Cleary, A. M., Irving, Z. C., & Mills, C. (2023). What Flips Attention? Cognitive Science47(4), e13274.
  • Huebert, A. M., McNeely-White, K. L., & Cleary, A. M. (2023). On the relationship between tip-of-the-tongue states and partial recollective experience: Illusory partial recollective access during tip-of-the-tongue states. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Advance online publication.
  • Neisser, J., Abreu, G., Drane, D.L., Pedersen, N.P., Parsons, T.D., & Cleary, A.M. (2023). Opening a conceptual space for metamemory experience. New Ideas in Psychology, 69, 100995.
  • Carlaw, B.N., Huebert, A.M., McNeely-White, K.L. et al. (2022). Detecting a familiar person behind the surgical mask: recognition without identification among masked versus sunglasses-covered faces. Cogn. Research 7, 90.
  • Huebert, A. M., & Cleary, A. M. (2022). Do first and last letters carry more weight in the mechanism behind word familiarity?  Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 1–8. Advance online publication.
  • Huebert, A. M., McNeely-White, K. L., & Cleary, A. M. (2022). Can cue familiarity during recall failure prompt illusory recollective experience? Memory & Cognition50(4), 681–695.
  • McNeely-White, K.L., McNeely-White, D.G., Huebert, A.M., Carlaw, B.N., & Cleary, A.M. (2022). Specifying a relationship between semantic and episodic memory in the computation of a feature-based familiarity signal using MINERVA 2. Memory & Cognition.
  • Cleary, A.M., Neisser, J., McMahan, T., Parsons, T.D., Alwaki, A., Okada, N., Vosoughi, A., Kheder, A., Drane, D.L., & Pedersen, N.P. (2021). Subjective distinguishability of seizure and non-seizure deja vu: A case report, brief literature review, and research prospects. Epilepsy & Behavior. 10.1016/j.yebeh.2021.108373
  • Cleary, A.M., McNeely-White, K.L., Hausman, H., Dawson, J., Kuhn, S., Osborn, R.M., Huebert, A.M., & Rhodes, M.G. (2021). Wearable technology for automatizing science-based study strategies: Reinforcing learning through intermittent smartwatch prompting. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition.
  • Ryals, A.J., Kelly, M.E., & Cleary, A.M. (2021). Increased pupil dilation during tip-of-the-tongue states. Consciousness and Cognition, 92, 103152.
  • McNeely-White, K.L., McNeely-White, D.G., & Cleary, A.M. (2021). Global matching in music familiarity: How musical features combine across memory traces to increase familiarity with the whole in which they are embedded. Journal of Memory and Language, 118, 104217.
  • Cleary, A.M., McNeely-White, K.L., Russell, S.A., Huebert, A.M., & Hausman, H. (2021). The tip-of-the-tongue state as a form of access to information: Use of tip-of-the-tongue states for strategic adaptive test-taking. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 10, 131-142.
  • Cleary, A.M., Huebert, A.M., & McNeely-White, K.L. (2020). The deja vu phenomenon’s entry into the realm of science. In Cleary, A.M. & Schwartz, B.L. (Eds.). Memory Quirks: The Study of Odd Phenomena in Memory. Routledge. (pp. 271-287).
  • Cleary, A.M., Huebert, A.M., McNeely-White, K.L., Spahr, K.S. (2019). A postdictive bias associated with deja vu. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 26, 1433-1439.
  • McNeely-White, K.L., & Cleary, A.M. (2019). Music recognition without identification and its relation to deja entendu: A study using “Piano Puzzlers.” New Ideas in Psychology, 55, 50-57.
  • Cleary, A.M., & Claxton, A.B. (2018). Deja vu: An illusion of prediction. Psychological Science, 29, 635-644.
  • Cleary, A.M., Ryals, A.J., & Wagner, S.M (2016). Recognition during recall failure: Semantic feature matching as a mechanism for recognition of semantic cues when recall fails. Memory & Cognition, 44, 50-62.
  • Cleary, A.M. & Claxton, A.B. (2015). The tip-of-the-tongue heuristic: How tip-of-the-tongue states confer perceptibility on inaccessible words. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 41, 1533-1539.
  • Cleary, A.M. (2014). The sense of recognition during retrieval failure: Implications for the nature of memory traces. In B.H. Ross’s Psychology of Learning and Motivation, Volume 60, pp. 77-112. Elsevier.
  • Cleary, A.M. (2014). On the empirical study of déjà vu: Borrowing methodology from the study of the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon. In B.L. Schwartz & A.S. Brown’s Tip-of-the-tongue States and Related Phenomena. .  pp. 264-280. Cambridge University Press
  • Cleary, A.M., Staley, S.R., & Klein, K.R. (2014). The effect of tip-of-the-tongue states on other cognitive judgments. In B.L. Schwartz & A.S. Brown’s Tip-of-the-tongue States and Related Phenomena. pp. 75-94. Cambridge University Press.
  • Ryals, A.J., Cleary, A.M., & Seger, C.A. (2013). Recall versus familiarity when recall fails for words and scenes: The differential roles of the hippocampus, perirhinal cortex, and category-specific cortical regions. Brain Research, 1492, 72-91.
  • Ryals, A.J. & Cleary, A.M. (2012).  The recognition without cued recall phenomenon: Support for a feature-matching theory over a partial recollection account.   Journal of Memory and Language, 66, 747-762 .
  • Cleary, A.M., Brown, A.S., Sawyer, B.D., Nomi, J.S., Ajoku, A.C., & Ryals, A.J. (2012). Familiarity from the configuration of objects in 3-dimensional space and its relation to déjà vu: A virtual reality investigation. Consciousness and Cognition, 21, 969-975.
  • Cleary, A. M., Ryals, A. J., & Nomi, J. N. (2009). Can déjà vu result from similarity to a prior experience? Support for the similarity hypothesis of déjà vu. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 16, 1082-1088.
  • Kostic, B. & Cleary, A. M. (2009). Song recognition without identification: When people cannot “name that tune” but can recognize it as familiar. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 138, 146-159.
  • Cleary, A.M. (2008). Recognition memory, familiarity, and déjà vu experiences. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 17, 353-357.
  • Cleary, A. M. (2004).  Orthography, phonology, and meaning: Word features that give rise to feelings of familiarity in recognition.  Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 11, 446-451.