An old Jedi mind trick

A new bit of research news has brought up old memories for me today. Researchers at the University of California have found that an area of the brain called the perirhinal cortext may help with the formation of associative memories.

Photo by Victor Lavrentev

(Photo: Victor Lavrentev)

Previously, scientists believed that when the brain assembled different elements of an experience into a complete memory, the work all happened in the hippocampus. That assumption no longer appears true.

The researchers studied volunteers’ brains with a functional MRI system to see what parts of the brain lit up when the volunteers were asked to memorize word pairs, such as “motor/bear.” Volunteers were asked to either remember the pair by fitting them into a sentence or, more associatively, by learning them as a new compound word, like “motorbear.”

When the volunteers used that more associative approach, their perirhinal cortices lit up on the fMRI, suggesting that the cortex can form simple associations.

The reason I mention this particular study is because it reminds me of the oral traditions class I took in college. Each member of the class was asked to use a memory theater to perform a great feat of memorization. Some people memorized entire chapters from books. Others, like me, memorized long lists of items and could repeat them in any order starting from any point. (I memorized the entire Criterion Collection of DVDs).

Memory theaters work by associating a memory with an image and placing that image in a predetermined spot in a place that you have intimate knowledge of. Sounds complicated, but it’s not. Say you are intimately familiar with the your childhood bedroom or your kitchen. You can probably remember the shelves and spaces and places where everything could be stashed, right?

Well take one of those places and imagine it in detail. Start from the left side of the room and move to the right until you’ve made a complete circle. Note as you go, in order, the cubby holes and hiding places and storage places you remember. Do this until you have a good series of places sorted out in your head.

You’ve just built a memory theater through association. Now all you have to do is put memories into that theater, and this is where the connection with the study mentioned above comes in.

What our professor told us — and I still believe it to this day — is that the human mind tends to remember the grotesque or the unusual. That’s why so many of the oral stories contained such extravagant and often gory detail; that sort of imagery simply stuck in the minds of the ancient bards telling the tales.

So when he asked us to fill our memory theaters, we were supposed to come up with grotesque (often sexual or deviant) images of those memories that would fill the spaces in our theaters. The more horrifying, the better for memory — so if you were trying to remember the name of the person who wrote Neuromancer you might envision William the Conqueror stepping onto the soil of England carrying his Gibson guitar (William Gibson, if you didn’t catch that).

Better yet — for your memory, if not your tender sensibilities — you would imagine William the Conqueror madly stabbing himself through the guts with the broken shards of his Gibson guitar, picturing in your mind how the blood spatters onto his “Hi, my name is William” nametag and onto the logo for the Gibson guitar. See, much more memorable.

I suppose the point of all this is just to say that volunteer test subjects in California remembering word pairs by creating compound words out of them reminds me of William the Conqueror stabbing himself with a guitar — or something like that. Talk about associations.

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