Memory, Social Cognition, and Predicting the Future

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A recent article in Harvard Magazine reports on the research of psychology professor, Daniel Schater, who is delving into  memory, social cognition and how the mind imagines the future.

From the article:

During the past decade, Schacter says, a revolution has occurred in the field of memory science: researchers have shown that memory is responsible for much more than the simple recall of facts or the sensation of reliving events from the past. “Memory is not just a readout,” he explains. “It is a tool that’s used by the brain to bring past experience to bear when thinking about future situations.”

In fact, Schacter continues, memory and imagination involve virtually identical mental processes; both rely on a specific system known as the “default network,” previously thought to be activated only when recalling the past.

Of course, this makes sense. Why wouldn’t the brain utilize its resource of past experiences to anticipate the future and to imagine possibilities? Schater and colleagues began to wonder if these processes applied to social cognition and how individuals might predict other people’s behaviors.

They developed and implemented an experiment to determine what parts of the brains were activated when participants were tasked with thinking about how a person might behave in a variety of different situations.

Again, from the article:

The researchers concluded that memory and social cognition therefore work in concert when individuals hypothesize about the future behavior of others. The brain regions responsible for forming “personality models” and assigning them identities are intrinsically linked to the memory/imagination systems that simulate the past and future.

While it is too premature to draw any conclusions about possible implications for education and learning environments, it is worth noting that students, who are deeply embedded in dynamic and sometimes quite challenging social situations, are employing a number of cognitive functions throughout their day. When considering the complexity of the mental processes being utilized, it is no wonder that so many students find the kind of schooling that focuses primarily on fact memorization to be mind numbingly boring.

Perhaps this vein of research can lead to a better understanding of empathy and what types of experiences might build up students’ brains with the sorts of memories that help them better predict and imagine the future they want for themselves.

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Resources for Improving Your Long Term Memory

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The following is a guest post by Dr. Craig Pohlman, Director of Mind Matters at Southeast Psych. You can view the original post here.

These days, it seems like there are no limits to what our genius gadgets (like computers, iPhones, tablets, calculators, etc.) can do.  So, is human memory even as important anymore?  The short answer to this is yes.

Even with all of the tools to which we have access, we still need our own memory for a variety of academic and other tasks.  Here’s a quick overview of the components of memory:

  • Short term memory holds a small amount of incoming information for a limited period.
  • Active working memory holds information in your mind while working with it at the same time, such as steps in a process.
  • Long term memory stores and retrieves information over a long period.

Both active working memory and long term memory are used extensively in academic activities, including reading decoding, reading comprehension, spelling, written expression, math operations, and math reasoning.  If you struggle with memory, there are plenty of strategies you can use to improve and to make these academic activities a little more manageable.

Last week, we presented tips for improving long term memory and before that, we listed ideas for boosting active working memory.  Here is a list of resources you can use to get more information about improving long term memory:

  1. Sum Dog – This website, www.sumdog.com, offers free games to make math fact practice fun.
  2. Quizlet – This website, www.quizlet.com, offers tools to help you study anything.  You can study words using flashcards, play games to learn and practice important course material, and test yourself to see if you are ready for success.
  3. “Thirty Days Has September: Cool Ways to Remember Stuff” – This book by Chris Stevens provides tips for memorizing across the curriculum.  Specifically, this book is helpful for younger students.
  4. “Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge: The Book of Mnemonic Devices” – This book by Rod L. Evans presents tips for memorizing across topics and is appropriate for all ages.
  5. Math Fact Grid – Web resources, such as www.mathisfun.com, offer free printable math fact grids (for addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division).  These can be used to practice and reference important math facts.

Exercising your memory (just like you would exercise your muscles) will help to make it stronger over time.  Visit www.sepmindmatters.com for more information.

Dr. Craig Pohlman is the Director of Mind Matters at Southeast Psych and the author of “How Can My Kid Succeed in School?”  Stay connected: Mind Matters Facebook | @MindMatters_SEP

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Oh, The Places You’ll Find Yourself — Spatially Speaking

Below is a TED Talk by Neil Burgess, a neuroscientist at the University College in London, who researches, as described on the TED website, “how patterns of electrical activity in brain cells guide us through space.”

Supplemental to the grid cells Dr. Burgess discusses are additional neurological systems that give us a sense of our surroundings. Dan Peterson, who writes a fascinating blog (Sports are 80 Percent Mentalabout the body-mind connection in sports, recently posted “Spatial Awareness on the Football Field” (where we found the above TED Talk — Thanks, Dan!) in which he writes,

Jeffrey Taube, a professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Dartmouth, has been studying our sense of direction and location. “Knowing what direction you are facing, where you are, and how to navigate are really fundamental to your survival,” said Taube.

In his research, he has found there are head direction cells, located in the thalamus, that act as a compass needle tracking the direction our head is currently facing.  At the same time, in the hippocampus, place cells determine and track our location relative to landmarks in the environment, say the football field sideline or the end zone.  These two sets of cells communicate with each other to guide our movement.

“They put that information together to give you an overall sense of ‘here,’ location wise and direction wise,” Taube explained. “That is the first ingredient for being able to ask the question, ‘How am I going to get to point B if I am at point A?’ It is the starting point on the cognitive map.”

It reminds us once again that strengths and affinities can be left at the door of our schools and classrooms if we don’t incorporate movement, action, and an intentional use of our bodies in our lessons and activities. Research continues to indicate that taking advantage of the neurological links between spatial ordering, graphomotor functioning, attention, and memory can help nurture achievement among a broader diversity of learners than the traditional sit-n-git approach (which leaves too many students itching for something more engaging).

How the Brain Retains (Infographic)

The folks over at mindflash developed this infographic about how and where the brain stores it’s information. While much of the brain’s information storage system remains a mystery, it is important to remember (see what we did there?) that memory is varied, nuanced, and often associative. Working memory is different than short or long term memory and what students take away from an experience or recall about it later, cannot be dictated by anyone else. They construct knowledge and memory themselves. It is why, as educators, we must be conscientious of providing environments and experiences that are meaningful, relevant, and engaging to them.

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