The study, published in the journal Neuron, was conducted by Alison Preston, assistant professor of psychology and neurobiology, and Dagmar Zeithamova and April Dominick.
The researchers found that human brains relate new information with past experiences in order to gain new knowledge, thus allowing the individual to better understand new concepts and make future decisions.
According to Preston, a research affiliate in the Center for Learning and Memory, which is part of the university's College of Natural Sciences, their findings could result in enhanced teaching methods and better treatment for degenerative neurological disorders, such as dementia.
"Memories are not just for reflecting on the past; they help us make the best decisions for the future. Here, we provide a direct link between these derived memories and the ability to make novel inferences."
34 people were enrolled to take part in the study. Participants where shown a series of paired images composed of different elements, for instance, an outdoor scene and an object. The paired images where then shown again later in a presentation. For example, a backpack paired with a horse shown in the first presentation, would then be shown next to a field in a later presentation.
According to the researchers the participant would associate the backpack with the horse and field. This strategy was used in order to see how participants would recall a recent memory while processing new information.
While participants looked at images, the team examined their brain activity by using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) equipment.
fMRI allowed the team to see how participants thought about a past image (a horse) when looking at the backpack and the field. According to the researchers, participants who recalled associated memories while viewing the overlapping image pairs were able to make associations between individual items even though they had never studied the images together. Furthermore, they found that the hippocampal-ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC) circuit in the brain is vital for binding reactivated memories with current experience.
"This is just a simple example of how our brains store information that goes beyond the exact events we experience. By combining past events with new information, we're able to derive new knowledge and better anticipate what to expect in the future."
Written by Grace Rattue