The precise role played by the hippocampus in supporting cognitive functions such as episodic memory and future thinking is debated, but there is general agreement that it involves constructing representations comprised of numerous elements. Visual scenes have been deployed extensively in cognitive neuroscience because they are paradigmatic multi-element stimuli. However, questions remain about the specificity and nature of the hippocampal response to scenes. Here, we devised a paradigm in which we had participants search pairs of images for either colour (perceptual) or layout (spatial constructive) differences. Importantly, images depicted either naturalistic scenes or phase-scrambled versions of the same scenes, and were either simple or complex. Using this paradigm during functional MRI scanning, we addressed three questions: 1. Is the hippocampus recruited specifically during scene processing? 2. If the hippocampus is more active in response to scenes, does the cognitive process (perception or construction) being engaged influence its activation? 3. If the hippocampus is upregulated during scene processing, does the complexity of the scenes affect its response? We found that, compared to phase-scrambled versions of the scenes, the hippocampus was more responsive to scene stimuli. Moreover, a clear anatomical distinction was evident, with scene perception engaging the posterior hippocampus and scene construction recruiting the anterior hippocampus. The complexity of the scenes did not influence hippocampal activity. These findings seem to align with perspectives that propose the hippocampus is especially attuned to scenes, and its involvement occurs irrespective of the cognitive process or the complexity of the scenes.
bioRxiv Subject Collection: Neuroscience