Each memory experience biases how you approach the next one

A new study provides evidence that our decision to encode information as new or try and retrieve it from long-term memory is affected by how we treated the last bit of information processed.

Our life-experiences contain a wealth of new and old information. The relative proportions of these change, of course, as we age. But how do we know whether we should be encoding new information or retrieving old information? It’s easy if the information is readily accessible, but what if it’s not? Bear in mind that (especially as we get older) most information / experiences we meet share some similarity to information we already have.

This question is made even more meaningful when you consider that it is the same brain region — the hippocampus — that’s involved in both encoding and retrieval, and these two processes depend (it is thought) on two quite opposite processes. While encoding is thought to rely on pattern separation (looking for differences), retrieval is thought to depend on pattern completion.

A recent study looked at what happens in the brain when people rapidly switch between encoding new objects and retrieving recently presented ones. Participants were shown 676 pictures of objects and asked to identify each one as being shown for the first time (‘new’), being repeated (‘old’), or as a modified version of something shown earlier (‘similar’). Recognizing the similar items as similar was the question of interest, as these items contain both old and new information and so the brain’s choice between encoding and retrieval is more difficult.

What they found was that participants were more likely to recognize similar items as similar (rather than old) if they had viewed a new item on the preceding trial. In other words, the experience of a new item primed them to notice novelty. Or to put it in another way: context biases the hippocampus toward either pattern completion or pattern separation.

This was supported by a further experiment, in which participants were shown both the object pictures, and also learned associations between faces and scenes. Critically, each scene was associated with two different faces. In the next learning phase, participants were taught a new scene association for one face from each pair. Each face-scene learning trial was preceded by an object recognition trial (new and old objects were shown and participants had to identify them as old or new) — critically, either a new or old object was consistently placed before a specific face-scene association. In the final test phase, participants were tested on the new face-scene associations they had just learned, as well as the indirect associations they had not been taught (that is, between the face of each pair that had not been presented during the preceding phase, and the scene associated with its partnered face).

What this found was that participants were more likely to pair indirectly related faces if those faces had been consistently preceded by old objects, rather than new ones. Moreover, they did so more quickly when the faces had been preceded by old objects rather than new ones.

This was interpreted as indicating that the preceding experience affects how well related information is integrated during encoding.

What all this suggests is that the memory activities you’ve just engaged in bias your brain toward the same sort of activities — so whether or not you notice changes to a cafĂ© or instead nostalgically recall a previous meal, may depend on whether you noticed anyone you knew as you walked down the street!

An interesting speculation by the researchers is that such a memory bias (which only lasts a very brief time) might be an adaptive mechanism, reflecting the usefulness of being more sensitive to changes in new environments and less sensitive to irregularities in familiar environments.

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