A trip down memory lane

By HSC Staff Writer • Published: May 20th, 2009
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

Many of us have experienced moments when our minds are suddenly transported to some long-forgotten event.

Usually the trigger is something unexpected… perhaps we’re buttoning a shirt, or we hear a door slam.

Then, suddenly, lost memories find their way home.

We’re back in time thirty years, and we can “see” our first-grade classroom again, almost as if we were sitting in the back of the room.

Psychologists are beginning to understand what goes on in our brains when these episodes of “mental time travel” occur.

Using sophisticated imaging equipment, Princeton University researchers scanned the brains of nine volunteers who were studying a series of pictures.

Later, when the volunteers were asked to remember what they’d seen, their brain activity mirrored what was happening inside their heads when they first saw the images.

Specific kinds of photographs, such as faces or locations, aroused identifiable patterns of brain activity. In fact, by carefully examining the brain scans, scientists could tell which types of images the volunteers were remembering.

The research offers insight into how people use memory cues or reminders, such as the proverbial string tied around a finger.

In the long run, psychologists hope to develop better theories of how people strategically cue memory, then develop ways to make cues more effective.

In the meantime, watch for unexpected moments of mental time travel and make a note of what triggered it. You may be able to use that cue the next time you want to stroll down memory lane.