Alison Preston, assistant professor in the Department of Psychology and Section of Neurobiology at The University of Texas at Austin, explores how the brain supports memory and how memory influences the decisions we make.
Our memories are the essence of who we are. But memories are not merely a record of our past experiences. They serve as a guide to the present and the future. Our memories establish expectations for current events and help us anticipate the future. In doing so, they influence how we learn new things, the decisions we make in the present and goals to which we aspire in the future.
Read about the memory function in this Q&A with Preston, also a faculty member in the university’s Center for Learning and Memory.
How did you get interested in the field of cognitive brain work?
When I was in seventh grade, my grandfather was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, which is an incredibly debilitating disease that starts with motor problems and eventually impacts cognitive function, including memory. That gave me a picture of how important studying the brain is and ultimately understanding the diseases that can have a very big impact on families. Originally, my goal was to go into foreign policy or law school. I worked in the field, but it didn’t engage me. When I was deciding where I wanted to take myself I thought about the things that I liked. One thing they teach you in political science is psychology, how people think and make decisions as groups and individuals. If you really want to understand what drives global politics, you have to understand how the mind works. So, I decided to switch fields and go into psychology. It’s really the brain that drives who we are.
What is the fundamental nature of your research?
My research explores how the brain supports the mind. We try to understand how the brain works and allows us to do all sorts of things — perceive, remember, feel and make decisions. More specifically, one of the big questions I’m interested in is memory — how our brain supports memory and how our memory influences what we do not only right now but what we might do in the future. Specifically, we look at how thinking about how the past influences the way we learn new things, allows us to set new goals and allows us to imagine ourselves at future time points so we can make optimal decisions.
What exactly is memory and why is it useful?
Memory comes in many forms, for example, remembering what you ate for breakfast, recognizing a face, driving a car. Different forms of memory are supported by different parts of the brain. The kind of memory I study is called episodic memory, and it contains all the unique events of our life (for example, a first kiss). Remembering events is a form of mental time travel that takes us back to a very specific place and a very specific time.
Tell us about the Preston Lab at The University of Texas at Austin.
I act as a mentor to several different researchers at different levels of experience. We have several people in the lab with doctorates and Ph.D.s — these people come in with a lot of expertise and are here to refine their skill sets and learn new techniques. Other lab members are at the graduate level — they are here to begin their research careers, learn how to design experiments, collect and analyze data. We also have several undergraduate researchers — the primary goal with students at the undergraduate level is to get them excited about science. The undergraduates do experiments, help collect data in the process of brain imaging and get a feeling for what it’s like to be a scientist day in and day out.
How do you use advanced computing in your science?
Everything my lab does is, in essence, computational. When we do research, we put people in a giant magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine and take thousands of pictures of their brains while they are doing various memory tasks. For example, learning a long list of words while they’re lying in this scanner for 45 minutes. Thousands of pictures, each made up of thousands of pixels, is a lot of data, and our job is to mine that very rich data set and relate it to various aspects of the task — whether someone is likely to remember words or not remember them, for example. You need a lot of computational power to do any sort of analysis quickly. We use HPC systems at the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC), specifically Lonestar 4, to do the data analysis for the brain imaging studies to try to understand how these patterns of brain response relate to human behavior.
By combining state-of-the-art MRI techniques with advanced statistical approaches to data analysis (for example, multivariate statistics, structural equation modeling, computational modeling), this research aims to extend beyond standard theories of memory to focus on a number of cognitive functions.
What is the biggest benefit of using advanced computing in your work?
While many things we do can be done on a standard personal computer, it would be very slow going to do so. Advanced computing, like the resources available at TACC, allows us to do things much faster, which has a direct influence on the rate of scientific discovery. In our case, advanced computing can cut months, or sometimes years, from our analysis time.
How do the students learn how to use these advanced computing resources?
Like many laboratory skills, students learn how to use the advanced computing resources from each other. They also can take formal classes on functional brain imaging techniques that teach students how to use these resources to analyze their data.
What is the importance of your research to society?
Memory research, both from a behavioral standpoint and a cognitive neuroscience standpoint, has had a major influence on the justice system, in particular eyewitness testimony. It turns out that our brains don’t really store objective truth. The goal of the brain is not to passively record the events of our life in all their detail. Memory, and remembering, is a constructive process. The goal is to build knowledge that incorporates all of our collective experiences and that may result in us storing information about things that didn’t really happen.
For example, you might observe a new neighbor walking his border collie down your street. At a different time, you might see a woman walking the same dog in the park. Your brain might store a memory that the man and the woman own the border collie, and when you see the man alone, you might remember the border collie, but the woman, too, even though you never have seen them together. That is just a simple example of how our brains store information that goes beyond the exact events we experience. Our memories are close to the truth but not entirely the truth. This can have serious implications when someone is sitting in a witness box and giving testimony. In our simple example, it is possible that the witness might be very confident that they have seen the man and the woman together in the past without having actually seen them together.
Why do you love going to work every day?
I love the independent nature of science. I like being able to choose what the important questions are to me. But I also enjoy the collaborative nature of science. In academia, the model is mentorship. I love working with students at different career stages and having a direct impact on their intellectual growth and future career decisions.
What’s your next big research question?
It could go many places. One possibility is to go beyond observation and to try to more directly influence memories. How can we alter people’s memories? How can we reduce the strength of a memory or eliminate it entirely? Eliminating memories may be particularly important for the treatment of anxiety disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, that involve the involuntary recall of traumatic events. On the flip side, can we enhance beneficial memories, perhaps those that integrate knowledge across experiences that might underlie the development of new insights or creative ideas?
Understanding the basics of how the brain supports memory will give us the tools to influence how we learn and what exactly we remember.
This story originally appeared on the Texas Advanced Computing Center website.