Memories, attention, and their psychological effects
Do you ever catch yourself, lost, thinking about the olden times? Well, not the prehistoric periods but the nostalgic childhood days and memories. Have you ever experience a sense of déjà vu? All this is possible because of memories- the power or process of reproducing or recalling what has been learned and retained especially through associative mechanisms. What are memories made of? Do different parts of our brain light up when we perceive an event than when we remember it afterward? What role does memory play in directing our attention to specific details in our surroundings? Have you ever tried answering such questions?
Cognitive neuroscientist J. Benjamin Hutchinson, who recently joined Northeastern University’s faculty, has faced these questions and is on a quest to find answers through extensive research. His research would not only help him erase all doubts but also contribute to our understanding of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD, and other learning conditions as well as lead to strategies to help people stay focused when attending a task. Up till now, memories and attention have been studied as two different topics. But Hutchinson wants to study their interactions with each other. He says,
“By recognising their interaction, I want to know: How does information from the past, in the form of memories, influence what we pay attention to in the present? Consider a simple example: You’re gazing into a sea of strangers. Suddenly, your eyes lock onto a familiar face. What drew you there? It wasn’t the present scene, but rather a memory. It directs your attention like a dart. The better we understand how attention is implemented in the brain, the better we will be able treat symptoms that interfere with it, such as those that characterise ADHD.”
Hutchinson’s primary tool in his research is functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, which looks at the brain in slices, front to back, like a loaf of bread, and tracks blood flow to its various parts. The nature of his research—which uses human subjects who lie in the massive machine as he observes and analyses brain areas that light up and go dark—made Northeastern a natural fit.