A new study demonstrates that the way memory works is far from the popular imagination of a video camera; in fact new and old memories are continually being cut-up, edited and spliced together.
The study, conducted by neuroscientists at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, demonstrates how current memories can be inserted into older ones (Bridge & Voss, 2014).
The lead author of the study, Donna Jo Bridge, used the example of falling in love:
“When you think back to when you met your current partner, you may recall this feeling of love and euphoria. But you may be projecting your current feelings back to the original encounter with this person.”
In the study, participants were shown objects located on the computer screen paired with certain backgrounds.
They were then asked to place the same objects in the same locations on the screen–but there were different backgrounds than they’d seen before.
In a third trial participants had to choose between three locations on the screen, either where they’d appeared the first time, where they’d chosen the second time, or a new location.
Bridge explained the results:
“People always chose the location they picked in part 2. This shows their original memory of the location has changed to reflect the location they recalled on the new background screen. Their memory has updated the information by inserting the new information into the old memory.”
While they were carrying out these tests, participants’ brains were scanned and their eye movements tracked.
The study’s other author, Joel Voss, explained the results:
“Everyone likes to think of memory as this thing that lets us vividly remember our childhoods or what we did last week. But memory is designed to help us make good decisions in the moment and, therefore, memory has to stay up-to-date. The information that is relevant right now can overwrite what was there to begin with.”
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Image credit: Scott Kinmartin