Using the Sims to see how new insights create new memories in the brain

This study seems pretty cool: scientists from Radboud University have visualized — for the first time — how the brain recombines memories of past events when these are complemented by new information. And they did this by using… The Sims!

In short:

  • Insight triggers reorganization of unrelated events into narratives
  • Increased neural similarity in mPFC and hippocampus accompanies narrative integration
  • Neural dissimilarity and hippocampal mismatch response signal event segregation
  • De novo integrated representations emerge as a consequence of narrative insight

From the press release:

We’ve all had that ‘Aha!’ moment when pieces of a puzzling problem seem to fall into place as we gain insight into a previously obscured solution. But what happens in our brains when we think ‘Aha!’? That was the question that Branka Milivojevic, Alejandro Vicente-Grabovetsky and Christian Döller, researchers from the Donders Institute at Radboud University, sought to answer.

Sims for science

Branka and her colleagues used The Sims 3 life-simulation game to make animated videos of life-like events which they showed to participants whose brain activity was monitored using an MRI scanner. They found that after people realized how some events fit together into a story, the memories of those events were joined together — just like pieces of a puzzle — to form a new memory of the entire story. This effect could be seen in the hippocampus and medial prefrontal cortex: brain regions involved in memory for personal, autobiographical, events.

Recombining memories

This is the first time scientists have been able to visualize how the brain flexibly recombines memories of past events when new information comes to light. This research has important implications for knowledge acquisition in educational settings. It suggest that teachers can aid learning, not only by explicitly providing the context for new material as they already do, but also by pointing out links within previously learned material, thus eliciting reorganization of neural representations of knowledge and the accompanying formation of an integrated “big picture.”

Abstract from the study:

Our memories are remarkably dynamic and allow us to reinterpret the past once new information comes to light. Gaining novel insights can lead to mental reorganization of previously unrelated events, thus linking them into narratives. The hippocampus and medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) support integration of partially overlapping events, but the neural mechanisms underlying the reorganization of memories for the formation of coherent narratives remain elusive. Here, we combine fMRI with The Sims 3 videos of life-like animated events, which could either be integrated into narratives or not. We show that insight triggers the emergence of de novo mnemonic representations of the narratives and is associated with increased neural similarity between linked event representations in the posterior hippocampus, mPFC, and autobiographical-memory network. Simultaneously, events irrelevant to the newly established memory of the narrative were pruned out. This process was accompanied by increased neural dissimilarity between non-linked event representations in the posterior hippocampus and mPFC and was additionally signaled by a mismatch response in the anterior hippocampus. Our results demonstrate that insight leads to neural reconfiguration of representational networks within a memory space and have implications for knowledge acquisition in educational settings.

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