Speak, memory

Here is a link to an interesting study that has received much publicity over the past few weeks:  http://earthsky.org/human-world/how-your-memory-rewrites-your-past.  The experimental protocol was relatively simple, using a spatial memory task on the computer screen while brain activity was recorded using MRI. Basically the subjects’ memory of the object’s location on the screen was manipulated by changing the background.  Under one protocol they all misplaced the object given the new background and then when later asked to recall the correct position, they remembered their mistake as the right place.

                                     Image

The primary area involved in this spatial recall task is the hippocampus, a very curious bilateral structure so named because of its resemblance to a seahorse.  I will say much more about it in the next posts. The researchers were surprised because they observed the same activity when the subject responded correctly or when making a mistake. The take-home interpretation here is that our memories are dynamic, integrating new data or circumstances into old, whereupon recall summons the changed version.

This task used spatial mapping which is a basic, evolutionarily old function of the hippocampus; it is very active when rats run a maze.  In humans it is also critical for the consolidation of episodic or autobiographical memories.  This research highlights what law enforcement, therapists and some writers have known for a long time:  Memories change over time.  Eyewitness accounts vary in recall.  One important facet of effective therapy with abused children is helping them develop and retain as accurate and as consistent a memory of their abuse as possible, because they have a strong tendency to remember with minimization, even denial, especially if the abuser were a loved one.  And today’s title is from Nabokov’s autobiography, in which he consciously endorses imaginative elements.  We are, even in our facts, a creative species.

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