Insight creates new memories in the brain

We've all had that ‘Aha!’ moment when pieces of a puzzling problem all 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, under supervision of LiI PI Christian Döller, Branka Milivojevic and Alejandro Vicente-Grabovetsky, researchers from the Donders Institute at Radboud University, sought to answer, 

Recombining old memories to form a coherent story

They 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. The researchers 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.

Sometimes the relationship between events (the left and right puzzle pieces) is only understood once the 'final puzzle piece' comes to light (in the middle). For the first time, researchers were able to record the brain signature of this process.

These findings reveal the mechanism which allows us to piece together events, which often happen at different times, into a single personal story we can tell our friends. Sometimes such stories can be clear, as the case may be when we recall steps taken to plan a birthday party. But at other times a story may remain unclear until we gain novel insights that enable us to piece together a number of seemingly unrelated events. For instance when someone throws us a surprise birthday party, we may only become aware of the significance of certain events once we realize that they were related to keeping the party a secret. In this case, gaining insight into the existence of the surprise party would lead to a reorganization of memories of previously unrelated events and formation of a new memory for the complete story.

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”.

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The memory and space group at the Donders Institute

Branka Milivojevic's profile page at Radboud University

Christian Döller's profile page at Radboud University

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