A NEW BLOG that moves memory findings from the lab to real life!

By: Idil Uner

“(...) we all have moments sketched in our memories (...) that come flooding back to us when we’re feeling a certain way, a reminder perhaps, of why we are who we are today.”

What is memory?

A few days ago my friends and I were enjoying the comfort of my heated home, leaning on each other trying to perch ourselves on my wooden windowsill; we were reminiscing about our night at Igloofest, an annual outdoor music festival in Montreal. I was laughing (the kind of laugh that comes from your belly and makes your ribs hurt) about how just one foot past the entrance, one wrong step onto a layer of thick yet invisible ice had me wiped out and falling on my back. I reminded them of how our cheeks were in a constant rosy state from the freshness outside, and how much of a twisted joke it was that we had decided to go on an unbearably cold day as it was -30 degrees Celsius with a windchill, which to be fair is nothing unusual for this time of the year. My friends, on the other hand, didn’t seem to recall these details, nor the crackling sound of the fire or the smell of beaver tails, they were instead chatting about how fun it was to be there as a group of friends before graduating, even though it was the type of day we should have done everything in our power to spend as little time outside and as much time inside as humanly possible. So, how is it that we had all experienced the same event, but our narratives and memories were different?

Our lab recently published a paper, ‘A neurocognitive perspective on the different forms and functions of autobiographical memory retrieval’, which explains that the difference in remembering might be reflected in the brain. There is one brain region - the hippocampus - that is needed to remember these past autobiographical memories - our past personal experiences, which helps construct memories during retrieval.

There seem to be two strategies for remembering; conceptual (thematic or action details) and perceptual (visual and contextual event) elements. When remembering Igloofest, for example, the conceptual element is that my friends and I had a good time together (supported by the anterior hippocampal activity) while the perceptual element is how cold it was (activating posterior hippocampal activity in the brain).

We have these different strategies for remembering because we use our memories for different purposes. If you want to relive something, for example and as a result experience nostalgia - you will most likely remember very specific details about how you felt, but if you want to remember the past to guide future thinking then you will want to have the overall idea to fit the mold. In terms of decision-making, the paper claims that conceptual remembering is useful to guide ambiguous decisions whereas perceptual remembering is more beneficial for well-structured tasks that have been experienced before.

Essentially, we all have moments sketched in our memories whether we remember them conceptually or perceptually, that come flooding back to us when we’re feeling a certain way, a reminder perhaps, of why we are who we are today. Clearly, memory plays a big role in our lives, though it is often difficult to define. Sure, we could use the dictionary definition but if there is one thing I learned in the Sheldon Memory Lab, it is that memories are much more complex than that.