Is hippocampal remapping the physiological basis for context?

John L. Kubie, Eliott R.J. Levy, André A. Fenton

Research output: Contribution to journalComment/debatepeer-review


In 1980, Nadel and Wilner extended Richard Hirsh's notion that the hippocampus creates environmental representations, called “contexts,” suggesting that the fundamental structure of context was the spatial representation proposed by O'Keefe and Nadel's landmark book, The Hippocampus as a Cognitive Map (1978). This book, in turn, derives from the discovery that individual hippocampal neurons act as place cells, with the complete set of place cells tiling an enclosure, forming a type of spatial map. It was found that unique environments had unique place cell representations. That is, if one takes the hippocampal map of a specific environment, this representation scrambles, or “remaps” when the animal is placed in a different environment. Several authors have speculated that “maps” and “remapping” form the physiological substrates for context and context shifting. One difficulty with this definition is that it is exclusively spatial; it can only be inferred when an animal locomotes in an enclosure. There are five aims for this article. The first is to give an historical overview of context as a variable that controls behavior. The second aim is to give an historical overview of concepts of place cell maps and remapping. The third aim is to propose an updated definition of a place cell map, based on temporal rather than spatial overlaps, which adds flexibility. The fourth aim is to address the issue of whether the biological phenomenon of hippocampal remapping, is, in fact, the substrate for shifts in the psychological phenomenon of context. The final aim is speculation of how contextual representations may contribute to effective behavior.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)851-864
Number of pages14
Issue number8
StatePublished - Aug 1 2020


  • context
  • hippocampal map
  • hippocampus
  • remapping

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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