The hippocampus may be the brain’s storyteller, connecting separate, distant events into a single narrative, a new brain imaging study shows.
Things that happen in real life don’t always connect directly, but we can remember the details of each event better if they form a coherent narrative,
said Brendan Cohn-Sheehy, an MD/PhD student at the University of California, Davis and first author of the paper1.
Cohn-Sheehy and colleagues used functional MRI to image the hippocampus of volunteers as they learned and recalled a series of short stories.
The stories, created specifically for the study, featured main and side characters and an event. The stories were constructed so that some formed connected, two-part narratives and others did not.
The researchers played recordings of the stories to the volunteers in the fMRI scanner. The next day, they scanned them again as the volunteers recalled the stories into a microphone.
The researchers compared the patterns of activity in the hippocampus between learning and recalling the different stories.
As expected, they saw more similarity for learning pieces of a coherent story than for stories that did not connect. The results show the coherent memories being woven together, Cohn-Sheehy said.
When you get to the second event, you’re reaching back to the first event and embedding part of it in the new memory,
Next, they compared hippocampal patterns during learning and retrieval. They found that when recalling stories that formed a coherent narrative, the hippocampus activates more information about the second event than when recalling nonconnected stories.
The second event is where the hippocampus is forming a connected memory,
When the researchers tested the volunteers’ memory of stories, they found that the ability to bring back hippocampal activity of the second event was linked to the amount of detail the volunteers could recall.
While other parts of the brain are involved in the process of memory, the hippocampus appears to bring pieces together across time and form them into connected, narrative memories, according to Cohn-Sheehy.
Only a handful of previous studies2 have shown the hippocampus to be involved in constructing narratives. Traditionally, in neuroscience, researchers have studied the basic processes of memory involving disconnected pieces of information, whereas psychology has a tradition of studying how memory works to capture and connect events in the “real world.”
These two approaches are starting to merge, Cohn-Sheehy said.
Research on memory processes could ultimately lead to better clinical tests for early stages of memory decline in aging or dementia, or for assessing damage to memory from brain injuries. More research is needed to understand the relative contributions of the right and left hippocampus to episodic memory.
Brendan I. Cohn-Sheehy, Angelique I. Delarazan, Zachariah M. Reagh, Jordan E. Crivelli-Decker, Kamin Kim, Alexander J. Barnett, Jeffrey M. Zacks, Charan Ranganath. The hippocampus constructs narrative memories across distant events. Current Biology, Sept. 29, 2021 ↩︎
Collin S.H.P., Milivojevic B., Doeller C.F. Memory hierarchies map onto the hippocampal long axis in humans. Nat. Neurosci. 2015; 18: 1562-1564 ↩︎