On Thursday 12th September, Dr Emma Cahill came to the Jafar Hall to speak about ‘Making Memories’ with the Psychology Society. Dr Cahill is a lecturer and psychological researcher, specialising in psychological activity at the cellular level. Her work tries to make connections between activity in the brain and how people make, and lose, memories.
Dr Cahill began her talk with the evolution of memory study – how Greek philosophers used to monitor human activity to study memory, and how in the modern age, we now use neurobiology to accurately see exactly how memories are made and lost. Without our memories, we would be unable to function as human beings. As Dr Cahill explained, ‘memories make us who we are’, they help us to adapt and prepare tasks and problems we are faced with. Without a memory of how to solve a given problem, one would have to guess.
Over time, the metaphor used to describe what memory is has evolved. Originally, memory was described as being like a library, where each book is a memory, and you can pick books up, use them and put them back. Today, the metaphor is that of a computer, where each file is a memory. One problem with this metaphor, which Dr Cahill outlined, is that there are three different types of memories; sensory, short term and long term. Sensory memory we lose almost instantly. An example of this is driving down a new road where you see a tree in the distance. You aren’t going to remember that tree unless you make a point out of remembering it. This is because we see so many things, one after another. After the tree, you will see the road, the inside of your car and so on, forcing your brain to forget the tree. This is called change blindness, and occurs because your brain does not store unnecessary information like the tree. Short-term memory stays with you for a short amount of time, so if you cram for a test by reading over your notes once just before you go in, you might just about remember most of it but will likely forget it almost straight away. The more things you have in your short term memory, the easier it is to forget them. This is called displacement, as your brain can only hold on to a certain amount of short term memory at once. Finally, long term memory is something like your own name – something you will never forget.
Dr Cahill finished her talk by outlining modern memory research. Long term memory enters a part of the brain called the hippocampus. A virus is placed here and when ‘activated’, the virus can label engrams (‘memory’ cells) when a connection is made. It is thought that this will allow us to learn more about how memories are made, and perhaps make memories artificially in a laboratory.
We would like to thank Dr Cahill for coming to speak, and inspiring us to learn more about this fascinating field of psychology.
Harry Ingrams MGHM, Angus Loder MGHM and Eric Li EJNR