Abstract Using Positron Emission Tomography (PET), we investigated cerebral regions associated with the episodic recognition of words alone and words bound to contextual colours. Two modes of colour encoding were tested: incidental and intentional word-to-colour binding. Word-only recognition was associated with brain activation in a lexico-semantic left middle temporal region and in the cerebellum following an incidental colour encoding, and with brain activation in the left posterior middle frontal gyrus, right anterior cingulate and right inferior frontal gyrus following an intentional encoding. Recognition of bound features was associated with activation in left prefrontal and superior parietal regions following an incidental colour encoding, and with preferential right prefrontal cortex activation following an intentional colour encoding. Our results are in line with the hypothesis of a parietal involvement in context processing, and prefrontal areas in monitoring retrieval processes. Our results also support the hypothesis of a ‘cortical asymmetry for reflective activity’ (CARA).