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Scientists discover what makes some experiences memorable to our brain

Researchers at Yale University have made strides in understanding what makes certain experiences memorable while others fade away
Researchers at Yale University have made strides in understanding what makes certain experiences memorable while others fade away. (CREDIT: Creative Commons)

Researchers at Yale University have made strides in understanding what makes certain experiences memorable while others fade away. Their findings, published in the journal Nature Human Behavior, delve into the intricate process of how the human brain filters and retains sensory information.

Ilker Yildirim, an assistant professor of psychology at Yale and senior author of the study, sheds light on the selection process of memory formation. “The mind prioritizes remembering things that it is not able to explain very well,” Yildirim explains. This means that unpredictable or surprising scenes are more likely to be remembered, as they pose a challenge to the brain's expectation and comprehension mechanisms.


The study, co-led by John Lafferty, the John C. Malone Professor of Statistics and Data Science, and director of the Center for Neurocomputation and Machine Intelligence at Yale's Wu Tsai Institute, introduces a novel computational model paired with behavioral analysis to explore memory retention. This model primarily focuses on how the brain compresses and reconstructs visual stimuli, a fundamental aspect of memory formation.

To test their model, Yildirim, Lafferty, and their team designed experiments involving rapid sequences of natural images shown to participants. The task for the participants was to identify which images they could recall. Intriguingly, the images that were difficult for the computational model to reconstruct were more frequently remembered by the participants. This suggests a direct correlation between the complexity of visual information processing and memory retention.


“Our study explored the question of which visual information is memorable by pairing a computational model of scene complexity with a behavioral study,” said Yildirim. He illustrates this with the example of encountering a fire hydrant in a remote, natural setting—a confusing and thus memorable scene due to its unpredictability and rarity.

Lafferty highlights the broader implications of their research, noting, “We used an AI model to try to shed light on the perception of scenes by people — this understanding could help in the development of more efficient memory systems for AI in the future.”


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This suggests that the insights gained from studying human memory processing could translate into innovations in artificial intelligence, particularly in how machines encode, store, and retrieve data.

The research not only advances our understanding of memory but also demonstrates the valuable cross-disciplinary approach involving psychology and data science.


Former Yale graduate students Qi Lin (Psychology) and Zifan Lin (Statistics and Data Science) also contributed as co-first authors of the paper, highlighting the collaborative nature of this inquiry.

The study offers a significant clue into the longstanding question of how our brains decide what experiences get remembered. By focusing on the complexity and predictability of visual stimuli, Yale's researchers have identified key factors that influence memory retention, paving the way for future studies in both cognitive science and artificial intelligence.


How does visual information processing work in the brain?

Visual information processing in the brain involves several complex steps. Here's a simplified overview:

Light enters the eye: Visual processing begins when light enters the eye through the cornea, passes through the pupil, and is focused by the lens onto the retina at the back of the eye.

Retina and photoreceptors: The retina contains specialized cells called photoreceptors, namely rods and cones. Rods are responsible for low-light vision, while cones are responsible for color vision and detail. When light strikes these photoreceptors, it triggers chemical changes that generate electrical signals.

Conversion to neural signals: The electrical signals generated by the photoreceptors are then processed by other cells in the retina, such as bipolar cells and ganglion cells. These cells help convert the light signals into neural impulses, which are then transmitted along the optic nerve to the brain.


Optic nerve and visual pathway: The optic nerve carries these neural impulses from the retina to the brain. These impulses travel along the optic nerve to the optic chiasm, where some fibers cross over to the opposite side of the brain. From there, the signals are relayed to various visual processing areas in the brain.

Primary visual cortex (V1): The primary visual cortex, located in the occipital lobe at the back of the brain, is where the initial processing of visual information occurs. Neurons in the primary visual cortex respond to different aspects of visual stimuli, such as orientation, motion, and spatial frequency.

Higher visual areas: From the primary visual cortex, visual information is further processed and distributed to higher visual areas in the brain, such as the visual association areas. These areas are involved in more complex aspects of visual processing, including object recognition, spatial awareness, and visual memory.

Integration with other sensory information: Visual information is also integrated with other sensory information, such as auditory and somatosensory input, to provide a comprehensive perception of the environment.


Overall, visual information processing in the brain involves a highly intricate network of neural pathways and specialized areas that work together to create our perception of the visual world.

For more science news stories check out our New Discoveries section at The Brighter Side of News.


Note: Materials provided above by University of Delaware. Content may be edited for style and length.


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