UT psychological study sheds light on links in knowledge

Alex Raisch

A memory means more than a record of events and might even influence how humans perceive and interpret new information to make decisions, according to a new UT psychology study.

Alison Preston, assistant professor of psychology and neurology, led the study on human memories appearing in the July issue of Neuron, a scientific journal. To conduct the study, Preston and a group of UT researchers showed people a series of images with a group of objects and then showed them the same objects, but paired them off in different ways.

The team then analyzed the subjects’ brain activity using an MRI to evaluate how the brain reacted to the changing visuals. Preston said her research demonstrates that linking knowledge across different experiences enhances people’s ability to make novel inferences about the relationships among different events.

“Let’s say you just moved. One day, you see a woman leaving the apartment next door, the day after, you see a man leaving the apartment next door. You may infer they are a couple, even if you never saw them together,” said Dagmar Zeithamova, co-author of the study and researcher at UT’s Center for Learning and Memory. “Previously, we knew you can make such inferences by using logical reasoning, putting the two pieces of information together. However, in this study, we show that your memory is set up to make such inferences for you.”

Additionally, Zeithamova explains that the process of memory making is the bridging of new and old experiences. “When you have a new experience that somehow overlaps with what you already know, your prior knowledge is brought back to your mind and you form a new memory that is already connected to your prior memories,” Zeithamova said.

Another takeaway of their research was a new perspective on memories. “Our memories do not necessarily reflect the exact events that happen to us,” Preston said. “These techniques provide evidence that learning may be an individualized process that depends on the unique experiences of the person,”

Preston said she hopes their work could be used to develop educational strategies to enhance learning in practical settings, such as the classroom and the medical field.