On March 12, 2013, The Wall Street Journal featured “The New Power of Memory” in the Personal Journal. Shirley S Wang reports that research published in the journal Cerebral Cortex suggests that we use the vivid memory of past experiences to imagine and anticipate the future. Without a subscription, I was unable to access: “Imagine All the People: How the Brain Creates and Uses Personality Models to Predict Behavior,” but I did find “The Future of Memory: Remembering, Imagining, and the Brain” by the authors mentioned, Daniel Schacter and Demis Hassabis in the November 21, 2012, issue of Neuron. The research included brain imaging that showed “that when people are asked to imagine the future as they recall past experiences, many of the same regions of the brain–the hippocampus and the medial prefrontal cortex–show increased activity”. As reported by Ms Wang, the new research scanned the brains of 19 young adults asked to imagine four short scenes involving imaginary people. Prior to this, the participants were given made-up profiles of four people that included photos and statements. Each profile had a different level of extroversion and friendliness. The participants studied the profiles and then were asked to imagine the different personae in situations. The researchers found that the different personality traits activated distinct brain regions. Thus, the researchers were able to tell which of the four profiles the participant was thinking about just by looking at the part of the brain activated in the scan.
This is interesting, but it is not particularly surprising. Meanwhile, the secondary headline in the WSJ article proclaims: “Sharp Recall Skills Prove Key to Future Success; Some Excel at ‘Mental Time Travel’. Not so much. The research does not show that. In fact, one theory of memory and cognition, fuzzy trace theory distinguishes between meaning based memory–the so called gist- and more superficial verbatim memory. The theory posits that these memories are encoded separately. It predicts that unconscious gist based intuition often produces better results than reliance on detailed verbatim memory. In other words, sharp memory is often trumped by hazy memory. This is completely at odds with the WSJ graphic.
In future posts, I will dig more into fuzzy trace theory and its primary proponent, Dr. Valerie Reyna.