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Memories Help Us Learn

Memories Help Us LearnNew research suggests the learning process is closely associated with what we already know, that is, our past experiences or memories.

University of Texas researchers say that when humans learn, their brains relate new information with past experiences to derive new knowledge.

Alison Preston, assistant professor of psychology and neurobiology, says the new study shows this memory-binding process allows people to better understand new concepts and make future decisions.

Researchers believe this new understanding of the learning process can improve care for medical conditions such as degenerative neurological disorders. Furthermore, the association between memories and learning could lead to the development of better teaching methods.

“Memories are not just for reflecting on the past; they help us make the best decisions for the future,” says Preston.

“Here, we provide a direct link between these derived memories and the ability to make novel inferences.”

The paper is found in the online journal Neuron.

In the study, 34 subjects were shown a series of paired images composed of different elements (for example, an object and an outdoor scene).

Each of the paired images would then reappear in more presentations. A backpack, paired with a horse in the first presentation, would appear alongside a field in a later presentation.

The overlap between the backpack and outdoor scenery (horse and field) would cause the viewer to associate the backpack with the horse and field.

The researchers used this strategy to see how respondents would delve back to a recent memory while processing new information.

Investigators used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) equipment to evaluate subjects brain activity as they looked at image presentations.

Using this technique, researchers were able to see how the respondents thought about past images while looking at overlapping images.

For example, they studied how the respondents thought about a past image (a horse) when looking at the backpack and the field. The researchers found the subjects who reactivated related memories while looking at overlapping image pairs were able to make associations between individual items (i.e. the horse and the field) despite the fact that they had never studied those images together.

To illustrate the ways in which this cognitive process works, Preston describes an everyday scenario.

Imagine you see a new neighbor walking a Great Dane down the street. At a different time and place, you may see a woman walking the same dog in the park. When experiencing the woman walking her dog, the brain conjures images of the recent memory of the neighbor and his Great Dane, causing an association between the dog walkers to be formed in memory.

The derived relationship between the dog walkers would then allow you to infer the woman is also a new neighbor even though you have never seen her in your neighborhood.

“This is just a simple example of how our brains store information that goes beyond the exact events we experience,” Preston says.

“By combining past events with new information, we’re able to derive new knowledge and better anticipate what to expect in the future.”

Source: University of Texas Austin

Memories Help Us Learn

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Memories Help Us Learn. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 23, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 13 Jul 2012)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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