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How memories shape our perception of the present

by Thea Singer

What are mem­o­ries made of? Do dif­ferent parts of our brain light up when we per­ceive an event than when we remember it after­ward? What role does memory play in directing our atten­tion to spe­cific details in our surroundings?

Cog­ni­tive neu­ro­sci­en­tist J. Ben­jamin Hutchinson, who recently joined Northeastern’s fac­ulty, is on a quest to find out. The answers could con­tribute to our under­standing of atten­tion deficit hyper­ac­tivity dis­order, or ADHD, and other learning con­di­tions as well as lead to strate­gies to help people stay focused when attending to a task.

“In gen­eral, memory and atten­tion have been studied as sep­a­rate aspects of cog­ni­tion,” says Hutchinson, assis­tant pro­fessor in the Depart­ment of Psy­chology, who comes to North­eastern from a post­doc­toral fel­low­ship at Princeton Uni­ver­sity. “By rec­og­nizing their inter­ac­tion, I want to know: How does infor­ma­tion from the past, in the form of mem­o­ries, influ­ence what we pay atten­tion to in the present?”

Con­sider a simple example: You’re gazing into a sea of strangers. Sud­denly, your eyes lock onto a familiar face. What drew you there? It wasn’t the present scene, but rather a memory. It directs your atten­tion like a dart. “The better we under­stand how atten­tion is imple­mented in the brain, the better we will be able treat symp­toms that inter­fere with it, such as those that char­ac­terize ADHD,” he says.

Scan­ning for clues

Hutchinson’s pri­mary tool in his research is func­tional mag­netic res­o­nance imaging, or fMRI, which looks at the brain in slices, front to back, like a loaf of bread, and tracks blood flow to its var­ious parts. The nature of his research—which uses human sub­jects who lie in the mas­sive machine as he observes and ana­lyzes brain areas that light up and go dark—made North­eastern a nat­ural fit.

“The new Inter­dis­ci­pli­nary Sci­ence and Engi­neering Com­plex will house a brand-​​new fMRI machine,” he says. “It’s just one example of how the uni­ver­sity is ambi­tiously expanding its research capa­bil­i­ties and fur­thering its already excel­lent quality of edu­ca­tion for both under­grad­uate and grad­uate stu­dents. It is a very exciting time to be here.”

In his lab, Hutchinson will con­tinue researching how our memory sys­tems favor the pro­cessing of new infor­ma­tion over old, pro­viding insight into the ways we learn. He will also expand his explo­ration into the mech­a­nisms by which memory influ­ences atten­tion, breaking “memory” into its var­ious types, including “episodic” memory, which processes spe­cific events (say, what you had for break­fast), to “semantic” memory, which processes fac­tual infor­ma­tion (the name of the first U.S. president).

“The data pro­vided by fMRI enables me to look at not just the pat­tern of activity in the brain but also how dif­ferent parts of the brain talk to each other,” he says. “At North­eastern, I hope to develop a com­pre­hen­sive model describing how the sig­nals in the brain that relate to dif­ferent kinds of memory dif­fer­en­tially impact our atten­tion. Unrav­eling these rela­tion­ships could add to a more inte­grated under­standing of how we think and behave.”

Originally published in news@Northeastern on January 6, 2017.

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