If you're like a lot of people, you likely remember what you were doing when you first heard about the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, or the destruction of the Challenger space shuttle. According to a new study, this is due to memory-enhancing chemicals that are released by the brain during "attention-getting" experiences. Furthermore, it is believed that intentionally triggering the release of those chemicals could help us memorize new things.
Working with colleagues from Scotland's University of Edinburgh, a team from The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center observed that such experiences cause the brain's locus coeruleus region to release dopamine. When this happens, memories that were formed soon before or immediately after that experience are essentially etched into our brain – even if those memories weren't actually part of the experience itself.
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That said, we can't necessarily arrange for momentous events to occur whenever we want to remember something. Fortunately, however, the effect can apparently be produced even just by performing interesting activities.
In lab tests, for instance, two groups of mice were trained to find food that had been buried under the sand. After each training session, one group was subsequently given the opportunity to explore an unfamiliar environment. When it came to relocating the food the next day, that group performed better than the mice that hadn't explored.
In more practical terms, it is suggested that students studying for exams could benefit by taking a break to play a new video game, or that someone trying to memorize a speech might do well to play a game of tennis right after reading it over. "In general, anything that will grab your attention in a persistent kind of way can lead to activation," says UT Southwestern's Dr. Robert Greene, who led the Texas team.
The scientists are now looking into how their findings could be used to facilitate human learning, and if they could help in the treatment of patients with failing memories.