Brain scans are used by researchers to better understand how we see and remember our daily surroundings.

Fresh new information about how the brain goes to great lengths to process and remember commonplace events is provided by a recent study from a Washington University researcher.

Zachariah Reagh is an assistant professor of arts and sciences at Washington University in St. Louis who specializes in psychology and brain sciences. When subjects watched brief videos of scenes that could have happened in real life, Louis and co-author Charan Ranganath of the University of California, Davis, used functional MRI scanners to track the brain activity of the viewers. These included both sexes working on laptops in coffee shops or going grocery shopping.

Reagh remarked that the scenes were quite commonplace. “No car chases or other action.”.

The research participants then gave as much detail as they could recall about the scenes. The seemingly unimportant details produced fascinating results, such as the discovery that various brain regions collaborated to comprehend and recall a situation.

“The Storytelling Lab is a fantastic fit for the scientific problems that I am most interested in. I’m curious about how the brain produces and remembers narratives.”

Zachariah Reagh, an assistant professor of psychological .

Regardless of their surroundings, networks in the front part of the temporal lobe, a part of the brain that has long been associated with memory function, remained focused on the object. Nevertheless, the posterior medial network, which includes the parietal lobe at the back of the brain, focused more on the environment. The hippocampus then combined the signals to produce a coherent scene after receiving information from those networks, according to Reagh.

Reagh noted that in the past, researchers had examined the various components of memories using very basic images and scenarios, such as an apple on a beach. Life, he said, isn’t that easy. “I wondered if anyone had conducted these kinds of studies with dynamic real-world situations, and shockingly, the answer was no.”.

According to the new research, people are mentally sketched in the brain in a way that allows them to be moved from one place to another, much like an animator would move a character between scenes. It may not seem logical, but your brain is very effective, he said, creating a sketch of a family member that it moves around.

Some test subjects were better than others at recalling the details of what happened in the grocery store and café. According to Reagh and Ranganath’s research, people with the best memories used the same neural processes to recall scenes as they did to watch the video clips. “The more you can bring those patterns back online while describing an event, the better your overall memory,” he advised.

Reagh remarked that it is currently unknown why some individuals appear to be more skilled than others at reproducing the mental processes required to access memory. But it’s obvious that a lot of things can get in the way. When trying to retrieve a memory, he said, “A lot can go wrong.”.

Even memories that seem clear and vivid might not accurately capture what happened. Your memory is not a video camera, I tell my students. It does not provide an accurate account of what transpired. Your mind is weaving a tale for you, he said.

Reagh is a member of the Washington University faculty working on the Incubator for Transdisciplinary Futures’ research cluster “The Storytelling Lab: Bridging Science, Technology, and Creativity.” led by Jeff Zacks, head of the Department of Psychology.

Reagh intends to investigate the memory and brain function of viewers of more complex stories in the future.

Reagh said, “The scientific questions that I find most fascinating fit perfectly with the Storytelling Lab.”. “I’m interested in learning how the mind generates and stores narratives.”.

The results are presented in the journal Nature Communications.

More information: Zachariah M. Reagh et al, Flexible reuse of cortico-hippocampal representations during encoding and recall of naturalistic events, Nature Communications (2023). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-023-36805-5

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