Memory Matters


In the first Harry Potter movie, Neville Longbottom tests out his “Remembrall,” a magical ball that turns red when the user forgets something. When this happens to Neville, he scrunches his face and says, “I can’t remember what I forgot.” Memory can be a tricky subject, and research on how the human brain works in conjunction with memory was presented recently in “Memory Matters,” an event held by UT’s Center for Learning and Memory in the Etter-Harbin Alumni Center.

The event opened with a variety of booths demonstrating research subjects from each lab with interactive activities and presentation. At the Preston Lab’s booth, people interacted with a video game-like computer simulation, where they searched for objects in a setting that tests memory. Across the room, researchers from the Priee Lab demonstrated visual adaptation by asking visitors to toss a ball in a basket and then do so wearing vision-altering goggles. It takes the brain several tries to adjust to the goggles and get the ball in the basket, then several more tries to adjust after taking them off. The overall effect was a lot of missed shots and several bruised egos.

The night’s topic was “Neuroscience of Change: How Current Research in Neuroscience Could Help us Live Better, Nurture Brain Health, Remember More, and Have a Brighter Future.” Professors Jarrod Lewis-Peacock, Michael Drew, and Laura Colgin discussed subjects ranging from multitasking to false memories and talked about how to utilize this information to maximize everyday brain use. The event was moderated by KUT executive producer Rebecca McInroy, who also hosts the KUT show Two Guys on Your Head.

Lewis-Peacock discussed how technology influences how our brains interact, and explain how when technology changes the way we interact with others, it changes our brains. According to Lewis-Peacock, we should adapt to technology—for example, in education and training, companies should teach people to be better researchers rather than cramming information into their brains that they could easily find on Google.

“The idea that if I just throw more stuff at you more things will stick is kind of a wrong idea. The more we throw at the brain, the more it’s going to forget,” Lewis-Peacock says. “So we need to appreciate what we’re good at, and what we’re good at is learning.”

One key breakthrough that Lewis-Peacock’s lab has made is that there is a “switching cost” to multitasking. This means when we switch back and forth between thoughts, there are residuals of each thought. This causes interference between those memories and weakens long-term memories, also reducing vigilance, attention, and perception in that moment.

Being able to grow more brain cells as adults is the key concept Drew’s team has been working on. As adults, we are able to grow cells in the hippocampus. Through rodent students, Drew’s team has proved that adult neurogenesis can be increased through exercise and decreased through stress. Most of these cells die off, but if you continue to use cognitive skills, more of them will survive. He stressed that the mind and body are not isolated from one another, and anything that is good for your body is generally good for your brain.

Colgin studies the impact of sleep on memory. She noted how when the brain retrieves memories, it does so from association, not from a pre-set recording of events. She also had some tips to students about the limited effectiveness of pulling all-nighters.

“If you stay up all night studying, the memories won’t get transferred to other areas. And the more distributed a memory is, in different places, the more easy it is to retrieve it,” Colgin says. “If it’s stored in location A, B, C, and D, they are all linked together. If you retrieve it through location A and it activates all the other ones together, that’s a stronger memory. Sleeping is when this process of transfer takes place, so it’s extremely important.”

For Colgin, the most exciting part about memory research is how we have a hand in our own cognitive development.

“The reason that I got into memory research is the fact that through your own actions you can change your brain physiology, brain anatomy, and brain chemistry,” Colgin says. “You can shape your future behavior through your earlier actions.”

Image by Dierk Schaefer via Flickr.


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