Above: As part of our discussion of memory today, we watched this clip about a fictional memory-loss company from the movie, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Our lecturer for the day, Psychologist Sharon Thompson-Schill, opened each of her talks with video clips, and I’ll do the same here. If you want to get a flavor for the material we covered today, check out the case of Clive Wearing: Life Without Memory, Part One and Part Two, the movie Memento (warning: don’t watch if you don’t want the movie ending spoiled), and the fictional Lacuna, Inc. (from the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). You can also read about patients we discussed, Patient H.M. and Patient D.F., and images used in experiments from Giuseppe Arcimboldo and Bev Doolittle. And while you’re web surfing, take an implicit association test (but be warned – you may be surprised with the results!)
We were covering all these topics as we took a tour of important topics in cognitive neuroscience, including perception, memory, and executive function. We asked questions such as: What constitutes the memory system? How does memory work? (For more on memory Dr. Thompson-Schill highly recommends the Seven Sins of Memory by Daniel Schachter.) How does object and facial recognition work? What do we know about executive function? In mapping the architecture of the human mind, cognitive neuroscience has asked the question, “What does this part of the brain do?” but we were reminded that underneath this question is a more fundamental query: What the right ‘labels’ to apply? What are the ‘atoms’ of cognition? (Click below to continue).
After a day of rest, we resumed Monday morning for a day on cognition and the brain. All of our sessions were led today by Sharon Thompson-Schill, a professor in the psychology department here at
We turned in the second lecture of the morning to the topic that would take the rest of the day: Memory. We walked through a taxonomy of types of memory, and spent considerable time talking about how memory works in the brain. A theme of the talk was that “memory” is not just one thing, and that the memory system draws on many parts of the brain. In the afternoon session on memory, we looked at how researchers use pattern analysis, and explored the theory of and evidence for consolidation of memories. We ended the day covering emotional memory, executive function, and the relationship between the two.
The day ended with a breakout session, with five topics covering:
- Cognitive Neuroscience of Moral Reasoning
- Cognitive Neuroscience of Learning Styles
- Cognitive Neuroscience of Music
- Cognitive Neuroscience of Face Recognition
- Cognitive Neuroscience of Meditation
II. Important Lessons
The word of the day was “labels”: what “label” do we put on the internal cognitive processes that we observe through behavior or other methods (e.g. imaging)? This theme tied well with the issues Geoff Aguirre raised at the start of boot camp: we have to be very careful in how we line up a scanner-task to a specific cognitive process.
As an example of this labeling process, we can look at the theory of memory consolidation. “Memory” is a complex process, and one theory that has developed is the idea that memories are first processed by the hippocampus, and then “consolidated” in the cortex.
Upon receiving sensory inputs, the hippocampus establishes a representation of the event, but this initial representation is fragile and not permanent. What happens next is a gradual process by which every part of the cortex learns this information. The cortex changes slowly, but once it has changed the memory is encoded in a much more permanent way. Disruptions in this process of consolidation can cause memory loss. An example that resonated with me (having watched former St. Louis Rams Kurt Warner take a few concussions) is what happens when a quarterback gets a concussion. The trauma of the concussion disrupts the consolidation process: the injured player’s cortex does not encode the event, and the injured player may not remember the big hit that sent him to the ground. Every time you do the same thing, you’re re-consolidating the event, so this in part explains why we remember some things better than others. (For some evidence testing this theory, see Avi Kami and colleagues 1995)
The consolidation process can be affected not only in ways that make your encoding less strong (as when getting hit in football), but also in ways that make your memory encoding even stronger. In certain aroused emotional states, the consolidation process might change. For instance, in what used to be called “flashbulb memories,” you may be able to remember certain events better than others (see this paper for one example presented in lecture). Though note this warning on memories such as where you were on 9/11 may seem to be clearer than others.
One proposed, though controversial and not universally accepted, theory is that of “memory
reconsolidation”. This theory argues that every time we replay a memory for encoding in the cortex, that memory is once again placed in its fragile stage (and thus the memory process is capable of being blocked again). Why might you want to block a memory? Common examples are traumatic memories that trigger Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome. The theory holds that even if you can’t block the memory consolidation initially, you can reexperience the memory and then block it (read here or here).
For my own work on the human costs of war and the costs of rape, these memory-erasing procedures seem a double-edged sword. On one hand, easing post-traumatic stress of a combat soldier or rape victim has great value. On other hand, however, would such procedures (especially if used effectively en masse) serve to marginalize or hide the true costs of these traumatic events?
III. Who’s at boot camp with me?
Of all the types of people you’d expect to find at Neuroscience Boot Camp, you probably wouldn’t think of a novelist. But acclaimed Canadian novelist Madeleine Thien is here with us. She’s here researching her new book, and reports that she is picking a lot of useful information. You can check out her novel Certainty, and read an interview with her here. We had lunch this afternoon, and covered everything from neuroscience to writing to religion and identity.