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NMSU psychology professor researches brain’s ‘ready to remember’ mode

What if students were able to turn on their brains to make sure they remember when learning something new? That future may be built on current research of a New Mexico State University psychology professor.

Graphic of the brain
This graph depicts the hippocampus encoding multisensory information: Visual information is represented by green dots in the occipital cortex, spatial information is represented by purple dots in the parietal cortex, and auditory information is represented by orange dots in the auditory cortex. (Courtesy Photo)
Women smiling
Megan Papesh, assistant professor in the department of psychology. (Courtesy Photo)

“Prior work has shown that brain activity during learning predicts learning outcomes, but our work shows that brain activity before learning is predictive,” said Megan Papesh, assistant professor of psychology in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Papesh and her collaborators at the Neurtex Brain Research Institute, Arizona State University, the University of California San Diego and the Barrow Neurological Institute are studying what happens in the hippocampus when people attempt to form memories and how it can impact what they remember. The hippocampus, a complex brain structure embedded in the temporal lobe, plays a major role in learning and memory.

“In this particular study, patients did something called a continuous recognition memory test. Essentially, they monitored a series of words presented one at a time and eventually words began to repeat. For each word, patients made old/new recognition judgments: Words were judged to be “new” upon their first presentation, but “old” upon their second,” Papesh said.

“We manipulated the delay between presentations, so some words repeated after very short delays and others after longer delays. The benefit of this method is that we could measure brain activity during both memory creation, during the words’ first presentations, and recognition, during their second presentations.”

The study of the human cognitive processes, including the dynamics of episodic memory creation and retrieval, has been the focus of Papesh’s lab for more than eight years.

Her collaborators include Zhisen Urgolites, John Wixted, Stephen Goldinger, David Treiman, Larry Squire and Peter Steinmetz. Their study analyzed neuronal reactions from the brains of patients with seizure disorder while they committed a series of words to memory.

They discovered that before a word was presented, the activity of the hippocampal neurons predicted if the word would be learned and later remembered.

“If the neurons were more active, the about-to-appear word was more likely to be learned than if the neurons were less active,” Papesh said. “These results suggest that brain activity can signal when someone is ready to learn.”

In the paper, “Spiking activity in the human hippocampus prior to encoding predicts subsequent memory,” published in the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,” the process was described as “attention to encoding.” Papesh and her colleagues anticipate researchers may eventually discover how to turn on “ready to encode” mode before the learning process begins.

“In the future, I can definitely see researchers working on non-invasive techniques designed to give people control over their readiness to encode. There is already some excellent psychophysiological work showing that fluctuations in attention can predict task performance, so figuring out how to control those fluctuations is a possible future outcome.

Papesh sees the possibilities for helping students to get more out of their educational experience.

“I would love to be able to give students advice on how to best “prep” their brains for learning. For now, we still rely on tried and true methods of brain readiness: Get a good night of sleep, minimize distractions, and find a way to connect with the material on a personal level.”