Educators in a variety of domains have known that experiential learning, a technique that engages and challenges, is a method to instill lasting memories.

University of Oregon researchers confirm this approach as they discover seeing and exploring are necessary for imprinting long-term permanent memories when confronted with a new experience.

Researchers studied the components of memory by recording how neurons fire in the hippocampus of rats as they are introduced to new activities. As in humans, brain activation in rats is seen in particular locations called “place cells.” These cells are believed to form a mental map of the environment.

Researchers believe directly experiencing or seeing an event creates a stable environment in the brain for recording experience, but exploration of the event allows it to be burnt into memory.

“The hippocampus is a small structure deep in the medial temporal lobe of humans,” said lead author David C. Rowland, Ph.D.

“It is critical for the formation of new episodic memories, and it is therefore unsurprising that the hippocampus is also one of the main targets of memory disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.”

To test their hypothesis, researchers injected rats with a drug that destabilized newly formed place fields in the hippocampus. In doing so, they discovered that their spatial preference developed only as the animal directly experienced the environment, echoing the autobiographical nature of episodic memory.

How does this translate to human experience?

“Stop to think about what you did yesterday, and you will immediately begin to relive those experiences — what you had for dinner, the conversations you had and so on,” Rowland said.

“Psychologists refer to this sort of memory as ‘episodic memory,’ or a memory of events that occurred in your life. A key feature of this type of memory is its autobiographical nature: It is a memory of your experiences, what you had for dinner, the conversations you had.”

Rowland’s work shows that place cells in the hippocampus appear to help create an autobiographical record of experience.

His research helps to align the hippocampal “place cell” phenomenon with the hippocampus’s well-described role in episodic memory, a connection that has been elusive.

Source: University of Oregon