Dr. A. Wilson Nolle and Sir Raghunath P. Mahendroo Professor of Neuroscience. Interviewed by Esther Robards-Forbes.
How did you get interested in studying memory, specifically knowledge systems?
There is a famous quote from Cicero: “Memory is the essence of all things.” Everything that we do and everything we think is based on collective experience. We wouldn’t be the same people that we are without the memories we have. The fact that our experiences make us who we are is one of the reasons I study memory. Memories are multifaceted, which is another reason I find them interesting. The kind of memory that allows someone to drive a car is different than the type of memory that allows someone to remember a specific event in their life. However, in all cases, memories are forward-thinking. They allow us to use our knowledge to make decisions about how to behave in the present and make predictions about the future.
So memory isn’t just about recall?
While it’s nice that we can reflect upon our past and remember what’s happened to us, either good or bad, that isn’t the true purpose of memory. Our brain spends computational resources on storing memories because they allow us to make better choices in the present and to plan for the future. Recollecting past experience during new events also allows our memories to extend beyond our direct observation. When learning new information, we often bring to mind related knowledge or experiences, so new information can be connected with our existing memories. Forging links between past experience and new events allows us to reason about the world in new ways. Creating connections among our collective experiences increases the predictive power of memory and optimizes decision making in the present.
What’s inspiring you in your work right now?
Studying memory in children and adolescents. I’m really inspired by this topic because it turns out that we know relatively little about how brain development is related to children’s and teen’s abilities to learn and remember. Childhood and adolescence exhibit unique patterns of brain structure and function. Learning how brain mechanisms are different at these different ages could influence how we teach children and adolescents. Because childhood and adolescence are distinct developmental stages, learning techniques that might be effective in children may not be well suited to teaching teens and vice versa. For instance, teens show a greater sensitivity to positive rewards when learning new information: They remember information presented along with positive feedback more than negative feedback.
Is there anything you wish that people understood more just about their brains?
Treat your body well and you’ll be treating your brain well. Eat a healthy diet, exercise regularly and do whatever you can to reduce your stress, like daily meditation or a hobby you enjoy. The earlier we can start, the better, because habits are often formed in childhood.
What’s your favorite memory?
When my child was born. It was December and it was snowing, which is so rare in Austin.