The Brain ‘Rotates’ Memories So It Can Make New Ones Without Overwriting Them
New research suggests the brain ‘rotates’ memories to ensure we can take in new information while keeping hold of older short-term memories.
Published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, the study looks at how the brain distinguishes between old and new details about our surroundings to help us make sense of them.
Neuroscientist Timothy Buschman and graduate student Alexandra Libby conducted their research by studying auditory perception in mice, having the animals passively and repeatedly listen to sequences of four chords and monitoring their neurons to determine the rodents’ associations with the sounds.
The findings indicate that rather than exclusively collecting all short-term memories together into higher cognitive areas like the prefrontal cortex, memories may also be stored in sensory regions and other lower cortical centers which detect and represent our experiences.
To allow us to consider both current and past information without mutual interference, it is thought the brain ‘rotates’ information to encode it as a memory. This ensures the information we have previously gathered doesn’t infiltrate our perception of the present, or get completely rewritten by new experiences.
In doing this, the two representations can draw from overlapping neural activity without intruding on one another.
Buschman likened the process to running out of room while taking notes on a piece of paper, explaining that when that happens, the writer ‘will rotate your piece of paper 90 degrees and start writing in the margins.’
Per WIRED, he explained: ‘That’s basically what the brain is doing. It gets that first sensory input, it writes it down on the piece of paper, and then it rotates that piece of paper 90 degrees so that it can write in a new sensory input without interfering or literally overwriting.’
The neuroscientist noted that the findings support both sides of a debate about whether short-term memories are maintained through constant representations or through codes that change over time, explaining that the stable neurons support the former argument while the switching neurons provide evidence for the latter.
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