Thinking back but moving forward: Memory and the science of future thinking

Why do we recall some memories more vividly than others? How are memories stored in the brain and drawn upon during memory recall? These questions and more were recently explored by Dr Christopher Tailby on ABC Radio Melbourne’s Evening Program with David Astle.

Dr Tailby will tell you that accessing a memory is not as easy as reviewing a file stored somewhere on the hard drive that is our brain.

“There are multiple pathways working in the brain when we recall information about an event or feeling. Different senses such a specific smell or a tangential conversation can act to trigger the memory of a meal you had when you were a child or on a family holiday. Our current understanding is that every time a memory is recalled, the brain reconstructs all the different elements of the memory anew,” he said.

Dr Tailby, Head of the Epilepsy Cognition Laboratory at the Florey Institute, believes part of the reason the brain reconstructs memory in this way is to enable a type of adaptive thinking in which humans have evolved to pre-experience things.

This is a phenomenon known as future thinking, or prospection, where the brain assembles past experiences in novel ways to problem solve future scenarios before entering unfamiliar or new environments.

“Before a job interview or before having a difficult conversation with someone are common scenarios when we might be doing this. Our brain seeks to test drive how we might play out different scenarios and draws upon memory to do this.”

So why is memory – a universal and common neurological process – not yet fully understood by scientists?

“Our brain is enormously complex, making memory difficult to isolate. The brain is made up of billions of neurons, with each of those themselves having millions and millions of connections. Even then, we’re only at the tip of the iceberg in understanding the intricate system that works to drive neurological processes like memory,” explained Dr Tailby.

“Cognitive neuroscience is the final frontier, the great unknown of our time. Our research into understanding how memory works enables us to discover ways to treat memory afflicted diseases like dementia and epilepsy, or to help ease the burdens that come with aging,” he added.

Learn more by listening to the full episode which aired on ABC Radio Melbourne on 15 July 2021.