Memories serve as tools for learning and decision-making, new study shows

(Medical Xpress) -- When humans learn, their brains relate new information with past experiences to derive new knowledge, according to psychology research from The University of Texas at Austin.

The study, led by Alison Preston, assistant professor of psychology and , shows this memory-binding process allows people to better understand new concepts and make future decisions. The findings could lead to better , as well as treatment of degenerative neurological disorders, such as , Preston says.

“Memories are not just for reflecting on the past; they help us make the best decisions for the future,” says Preston, a research affiliate in the Center for Learning and Memory, which is part of the university’s College of Natural Sciences. “Here, we provide a direct link between these derived memories and the ability to make novel inferences.”

The paper was published online in July in the journal Neuron. The authors include University of Texas at Austin researchers Dagmar Zeithamova and April Dominick.

In the study, 34 subjects were shown a series of paired images composed of different elements (for example, an object and an outdoor scene). Each of the paired images would then reappear in more presentations. A backpack, paired with a horse in the first presentation, would appear alongside a field in a later presentation. The overlap between the backpack and outdoor scenery (horse and field) would cause the viewer to associate the backpack with the horse and field. The researchers used this strategy to see how respondents would delve back to a recent memory while processing new information.

Using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) equipment, the researchers were able to look at the subjects’ activity as they looked at image presentations. Using this technique, Preston and her team were able to see how the respondents thought about past images while looking at overlapping images. For example, they studied how the respondents thought about a past image (a horse) when looking at the backpack and the field. The researchers found the subjects who reactivated related memories while looking at overlapping image pairs were able to make associations between individual items (i.e. the horse and the field) despite the fact that they had never studied those images together.

To illustrate the ways in which this cognitive process works, Preston describes an everyday scenario.

Imagine you see a new neighbor walking a Great Dane down the street. At a different time and place, you may see a woman walking the same dog in the park. When experiencing the woman walking her dog, the brain conjures images of the recent memory of the neighbor and his Great Dane, causing an association between the dog walkers to be formed in memory. The derived relationship between the dog walkers would then allow you to infer the woman is also a new neighbor even though you have never seen her in your neighborhood.

“This is just a simple example of how our brains store information that goes beyond the exact events we experience,” Preston says. “By combining past events with new information, we’re able to derive new knowledge and better anticipate what to expect in the future.”

During the learning tasks, the researchers were able to pinpoint the brain regions that work in concert during the memory-binding process. They found the hippocampal-ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC) circuit is essential for binding reactivated memories with current experience.

Related Stories

Ready to learn? Brain scans can tell you

Aug 19, 2011

Our memories work better when our brains are prepared to absorb new information, according to a new study by MIT researchers. A team led by Professor John Gabrieli has shown that activity in a specific part ...

Remembering to forget

Jun 22, 2012

(Medical Xpress) -- New research suggests that it is possible to suppress emotional autobiographical memories.  The study published this month by psychologists at the University of St Andrews reveals that individuals ...

Recommended for you

Know the brain, and its axons, by the clothes they wear

Apr 18, 2014

(Medical Xpress)—It is widely know that the grey matter of the brain is grey because it is dense with cell bodies and capillaries. The white matter is almost entirely composed of lipid-based myelin, but ...

Turning off depression in the brain

Apr 17, 2014

Scientists have traced vulnerability to depression-like behaviors in mice to out-of-balance electrical activity inside neurons of the brain's reward circuit and experimentally reversed it – but there's ...

Rapid whole-brain imaging with single cell resolution

Apr 17, 2014

A major challenge of systems biology is understanding how phenomena at the cellular scale correlate with activity at the organism level. A concerted effort has been made especially in the brain, as scientists are aiming to ...

User comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Tausch
not rated yet Jul 14, 2012
Farewell to the label 'hard wiring'.

Thanks to a poor understanding from the communtiy of journalism and a misguided following for the sake of circulation and profit from publication.