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 (Sheldon, Fenerci & Gurguryan, 2019). 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.
Sheldon, S., Fenerci, C., & Gurguryan, L. (2019). A Neurocognitive Perspective on the Forms and Functions of Autobiographical Memory Retrieval. Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience, 13. doi:10.3389/fnsys.2019.00004
“(…) for a while even many scientists argued that a hierarchy of intellectual abilities existed.”
Are Memories Different Across Individuals?
Growing up I felt like I had options to pursue sciences, arts and everything in between. Unfortunately, I don’t share this reality with many other women. From a young age girls are often told that it’s okay if they aren’t good at math or any STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) field for that matter, because, well apparently, “girls are bad at math”. But, you see, there is no such thing as a math person or a “math brain”.
This assumption, is not just widely accepted among everyday people, but for a while even many scientists argued that a hierarchy of intellectual abilities existed. For example, concrete imagistic thought (e.g. focusing more on surroundings and less on what is beyond your viewpoint) was said to be inferior to abstract thought (e.g. ability to think about things that aren’t physically in front of you) . These claims were also used to push political or social agendas in the commonly assumed racial–biological hierarchy, in which white males and “superior” races would be more likely to use abstract thought and women, children, and other races would be more likely to use imagistic thought.
Galton, a scientist in the Victorian England, further explored these claims and carried out an investigation of mental imagery among a sample of scientists and non-scientists. This investigation was innovative in that it was the one of the first to examine individual differences for a psychological process and study recollective memory through visual imagery. Galton carried out the Breakfast Questionnaire in which participants recalled specific scenes such as that of their breakfast table. He found that scientists are most likely to engage in abstract thought and least likely to use concrete images.
Brewer and Schommer-Aikins (2006) published ‘Scientists Are Not Deficient in Mental Imagery’ to explain that Galton’s findings were not replicable. They found that most scientists don’t show little or no mental imagery, instead scientists show strong visual imagery in recollective memory tasks, just as nonscientist undergraduates do. The data suggests that while there may be some small differences in vividness of visual imagery between scientists and undergraduates, these differences could be because of age differences or differences in style of reporting internal mental states. The paper further explores how Galton’s conclusions may be a classic example of theory-ladenness in science, in which scientists’ prior beliefs (theories) can have an impact on their perception, attention, interpretation, memory, and communication of their work.
Individual differences in memory do exist, for example in spatial, perceptual, imagery, working memory functions (Palombo, Sheldon & Levine, 2018). These differences may have consequences for academic abilities, occupation and daily life function. However, making claims about groups of people, whether these assumptions are imposed on oneself by others or self-imposed can be threatening to societal progress.
This topic is also quite fitting for today, International Women's Day, a day that serves as a reminder to celebrate each other and what we are capable of doing. I hope this blog post can serve as your reminder and encouragement!
Brewer, W. F., & Schommer-Aikins, M. (2006). Scientists Are Not Deficient in Mental Imagery: Galton Revised. Review of General Psychology, 10(2), 130-146. doi:10.1037/1089-26126.96.36.199
Palombo, D., Sheldon, S., & Levine, B. (2018). Individual Differences in Autobiographical Memory. Trends in Cognitive Sciences. doi:10.31234/osf.io/qr4f9
“These findings, that false memories also exist in people who have superior memory indicate that reconstructive processes may actually be crucial to episodic remembering.”
Living with Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory: A Curse or a Blessing in Disguise?
As a Harry Potter fan, Albus Dumbledore - the headmaster of the wizarding school, Hogwarts - always fascinated me. One of my favorite quotes from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was when Dumbledore told Harry, “I sometimes find, and I am sure you know the feeling, that I simply have too many thoughts and memories crammed into my mind”. Although he was referring to the Pensieve which was a magical instrument used by the head teachers to view autobiographical memories, it made me wonder if he was an individual with Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM).
HSAM individuals are people who can remember autobiographical life events in extraordinary detail. I mean, just imagine, for example, if you could remember the day your high school sweetheart broke up with you in extreme detail. Well, individuals with HSAM can do exactly that.
But how do these individuals with HSAM remember? Research has suggested autobiographical memories are constructed as mental images when they are retrieved, which makes them subject to distortion. Does this also happen in HSAM, or do these people recall the past as static photographs?
Researchers have been interested in studying false memory, which is when people think they remember something that happened even though it never actually did, as it shows us that people do construct memories (Loftus, 1997). A recent study looked to see if HSAM have photographic like memories or construct memories, much like regular folk (Patihis, et al. 2013). They found that HSAM participants and controls were both susceptible to false recognition of critical lure words that were not actually presented in an associative word-list task. Furthermore, HSAM participants were equally as likely as controls to mistakenly report they had seen nonexistent footage of a plane crash. These findings, that false memories also exist in people who have superior memory indicate that reconstructive processes may actually be crucial to episodic remembering.
Since individuals with HSAM construct past memories in GREAT detail, and other work has linked past remembering to future imagination - can these individuals also possibly imagine the future as if it has already happened? How does that affect they way they carry out their life?
It seems like having this memory ability would be useful because we rely on memories to not only share stories or learn from past experiences, but also for crucial things like creating a sense of identity. But perhaps individuals with HSAM would beg to differ and wish for their very own magical Pensieve to declutter their minds from the extremely detailed memories they can’t help themselves from remembering.
Loftus, Elizabeth F. “Creating False Memories.” Scientific American, vol. 277, no. 3, 1997, pp. 70–75., doi:10.1038/scientificamerican0997-70.
Patihis, L., et al. “False Memories in Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory Individuals.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 110, no. 52, 2013, pp. 20947–20952., doi:10.1073/pnas.1314373110.
We would be psyched to hear your thoughts on the blog and all things psych-related!