How our minds re-create the past
Our past is not just recalled from our memory, but instead it is partially constructed in the process of remembering. This is the theory of the Research Unit 2812 "Scenario Construction: A new framework in episodic memory“. The German Research Council (Deutschen Forschungsgemeinschaft, DFG) has extended funding for the unit, led by Prof. Dr Sen Cheng of the Institute of Neural Computation at the Ruhr University Bochum, for the next three years.
Not everyone is always on the same page
Did I put the coffee maker at home off? This question sets the cog wheels in our brain in motion. We construct a scenario of what could have happend in an attempt to remember the exact details. Previously, it was believed that information is stored in memory and later retrieved. However, empirical evidence clearly indicates that the content of episodic memory is constructed to some degree during recollection. Research Unit 2812 is developing a theory of episodic memory based on such scenarios.
But what does this mean, and what are the underlying mechanisms of these processes? Are researchers actually talking about one and the same thing? "There are major conceptual differences between disciplines when it comes to episodic memory," says Sen Cheng. During the first funding phase of the Research Unit, the FOR 2812 researchers made great progress in narrowing down the answers to these questions. “Scenarios are mental simulations of a past episode based on episodic memory traces and semantic information. They thus make it possible to fill in missing information and adapt content, for example, to the self-model and social requirements,” he explains. In the past three years the group has developed computer models to study the function of episodic memory and philosophical theories about it.
The social function of memory
In the coming years the goal is to apply and extend the results. The focus is on direct, self-referential and social functions of episodic memory; the interaction between episodic memory traces and semantic information, the mechanisms by which the self-model and social interactions modulate scenario construction, and the study of the encoding of episodic memory traces and its dependence on the semantic network.
The above is a translation of the official press release (in German) which can be found here.