The Hippocampus as a Cognitive Map: the book

book coverA few weeks ago the Nobel Prize Committee announced that John O’Keefe, Edvard Moser and May-Britt Moser would be the recipients of the 2014 prize for Physiology and Medicine for their work in deciphering the code of neurons in the rat hippocampal region. The work is frequently summarized as revealing the functioning of the brain’s GPS system at the level of neurons and networks of neurons.  While the GPS part is true, the work is far broader, giving insights into the neural substrate of broad areas of cognition that include memory, planning, creativity and internal thought. What follows are some of my thoughts, focusing on historical roots of the discoveries. Emphasis is on the significance of John O’Keefe and Lynn Nadel’s 1978 book, “The Hippocampus as a Cognitive Map”1.

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What is episodic memory good for?

The function of learning is clear: modifying behavior through experience. Memory, the storage of information that supports learning, is clearly necessary and valuable. Current psychology and neuroscience tell us that there are two memory systems enabled by separate neural systems. Procedural memory relies on reward circuitry and trial-and-error processes to mold efficient behaviors. Episodic memory stores specifc events in the life of the individual — but for what purpose? Continue reading

Are Place-to-Memory Associations a 2-way Street?

two way narrowPeople who study memory are familiar with the concept of a Memory Palace, a memory scheme for storing information in remembered places. The Memory Palace story is beautifully described in Joshua Foer’s book Moonwalking With Einstein (although it wasn’t clear to me if Einstein was walking on the moon or walking with Michael Jackson). For millennia, mnenonic super stars have memorized gargantuan lists by associating each list item with a location in a virtual home or palace. During learning, the mnemonicist imagines walking through the palace and placing each item in a particular location. At the time of recall, the memorizer imagines walking through the memory palace and, as if by magic, seeing each item where it had been placed. According to this notion, the ability to associate places to content is natural and fairly easy to master. So easy that Joshua Foer, who had no obvious memory potential, became a national memory champion by mastering the technique. I find the accounts impressive and extremely convincing, although I’ve failed miserably when trying to do this. Overall, the Memory Palace phenomenon suggests a strong natural link between location and memory. Some have taken this linkage to suggest that place serves as in indexing system for memory — a kind of lookup table. A point I’ll return to.

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