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Memory Retrieval

February 1, 2006

When you’re searching for a document on your computer, you can actually watch the computer scanning its memory until it finds a match. Recently, scientists got a similar view of memory retrieval in humans.


Watching memories resurface. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

If you’re trying to remember something, your brain rummages through its memory banks until the answer pops into your head. Recently, Sean Polyn and his colleagues at Princeton University used brain scans to watch that happen. They showed people pictures of celebrities, famous places, and common objects. Each category created a distinct pattern of brain activity. The same patterns resurfaced when the subjects remembered what they saw.

SEAN POLYN (Princeton University):
We saw that while people searched through their memories, we could tell which type of item they were searching for, a few seconds before they started naming the specific items.

He says that retrieving a memory is like re-living the past, with each detail triggering another. It’s hoped that understanding how memory works will lead to better treatments for memory loss.

I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.