New research is challenging the idea that working memory helps us remembers things through sustained brain activity.
Instead, researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison have found that our brains tuck less-important information away beyond the reach of the tools that typically monitor brain activity. The researchers then were able to bring that information back into active attention with magnets.
“A lot of mental illness is associated with the inability to choose what to think about,” he said. “What we’re taking are first steps toward looking at the mechanisms that give us control over what we think about.”
According to Postle, most people feel they are able to concentrate on a lot more than their working memory can actually hold. It’s a bit like vision, in which it feels like we’re seeing everything in our field of view, but details slip away unless you re-focus on them regularly.
“The notion that you’re aware of everything all the time is a sort of illusion your consciousness creates,” he said. “That is true for thinking, too. You have the impression that you’re thinking of a lot of things at once, holding them all in your mind.
But lots of research shows us you’re probably only actually attending to — are conscious of in any given moment — just a very small number of things.”
For the study, the researchers conducted a series of experiments in which people were asked to remember two items representing different types of information — words, faces, and directions of motion — because they’d be tested on their memories.
When the researchers gave their subjects a cue as to the type of question coming — a face, for example, instead of a word — the electrical activity and blood flow in the brain associated with the word memory disappeared. But if a second cue came letting the person know they would now be asked about that word, the brain activity would jump back up to a level indicating it was the focus of attention.
“People have always thought neurons would have to keep firing to hold something in memory. Most models of the brain assume that,” Postle said. “But we’re watching people remember things almost perfectly without showing any of the activity that would come with a neuron firing. The fact that you’re able to bring it back at all in this example proves it’s not gone. It’s just that we can’t see evidence for its active retention in the brain.”
The researchers were also able to bring the seemingly abandoned items back to mind without cueing their subjects. Using a technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to apply a focused electromagnetic field to a precise part of the brain involved in storing the word, they could trigger the sort of brain activity representing focused attention.
Additionally, if they cued their subjects to focus on a face (causing brain activity associated with the word to drop off), a well-timed pulse of transcranial magnetic stimulation would snap the stowed memory back into attention, and prompt the subjects to incorrectly think that they had been cued to focus on the word, the researchers report.
“We think that memory is there, but not active,” said Postle. “More than just showing us it’s there, the TMS can actually make that memory temporarily active again.”
The study suggests a state of memory apart from the spotlight attention of active working memory and the deep storage of more significant things in long-term memory, according to Postle.
“What’s still unknown here is how the brain determines what falls away, and what enables you to retrieve things in the short-term if you need them,” he said.
Studying how the brain apportions attention could eventually influence the way we understand and treat some mental health disorders such as schizophrenia, in which patients focus on hallucinations instead of reality, and depression, which seems related to spending an unhealthy amount of time dwelling on negative things, he noted.
“We are making some interesting progress with very basic research,” he said. “But you can picture a point at which this work could help people control their attention, choose what they think about, and manage or overcome some very serious problems associated with a lack of control.”
The study was published in the journal Science.
Source: University of Wisconsin-Madison