People love stories. We find it easier to recall events when they are part of an overarching story. In reality however, the chapters of a tale may not flow smoothly from one another. There are other things that occur between. A new brain imaging study by the Center for Neuroscience, University of California, Davis shows that the brain’s storyteller is the hippocampus. It connects distant events to form a narrative. The study was published on Sept. 29 in Current Biology.
Although the events that occur in real life might not always be connected but we are able to recall the details better when they are part a coherent story.
Brendan Cohn Sheehy, M.D./Ph.D., Study First Author, and student at the University of California, Davis.
Cohn-Sheehy, along with colleagues from Professor Charan Ranganath’s Dynamic Memory Laboratory at the Center for Neuroscience used functional MRI to study the hippocampus of volunteers while they were learning and recalling stories from a short series.
The stories, specifically designed for the study, featured the main and side characters, as well as an event. The stories were constructed in such a way that some comprised two-part narratives and others did not.
Researchers played the audio recordings to the participants in the fMRI scanner. The next day, they scanned them again as the participants recollected the stories. Researchers compared the activity patterns in the hippocampus while the volunteers were learning and recalling the stories.
They found more similarities in stories that were connected than those that were not. Cohn-Sheehy claimed that the results showed how coherent memories are weaved together.
“When you reach the second event, you’re going back to the first event and encapsulating part of it in the new memory,” he said.
Hippocampus weaves memories
Then, they compared hippocampal patterns of learning and retrieval. The hippocampus activates more information when recalling stories that make up an integrated narrative than recalling unconnected stories.
Cohn-Sheehy stated, “The second event is when the hippocampus is formed as an integrated memory.”
When researchers tested volunteers’ memory of stories, they discovered that the ability to bring back hippocampal activity of the second event was linked to the amount of detail participants could recall.
While other parts of the brain are involved in the process of forming memories the hippocampus is believed to join pieces over time and help form connected, narrative memories Cohn-Sheehy explained.
The work is part of a new era in memory research. Traditionally, in neuroscience, researchers have studied the basic processes of memory involving disconnected pieces of information, while psychology has a long history of studying how memory works to connect and record events that occur in the “real world.” Cohn-Sheehy argued that these two camps are merging.
“We’re using brain imaging to get at real-time memory processes,” he said.
Research on memory processes could lead to better tests for clinical testing for the initial stages of decline in memory in the process of aging or dementia, or to assess damage to memory from brain injuries.
Cohn-Sheehy, B. I., et al. (2021) The hippocampus is a source of narrative memories that span distant events. Current Biology. doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2021.09.013.
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