Human brains run multiple systems in memory, DKU study suggests

Futing Zou and Sze Chai Kwok

How vivid are your memories? Perhaps the dogged clarity of a traumatic public speaking experience weeks ago still gnaws away at you.

Or the passing waft from a flower bed hints at the faintest memory of a summer’s day in childhood.

The way our brains process and recall such memories is the subject of a Duke Kunshan University study published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.

Authored by Sze Chai Kwok, associate professor of cognitive neuroscience at DKU, and research assistant Futing Zou, the paper offers fresh insight into the memory processes that navigate fundamental aspects of our lives, including the capacity to take stock of our experiences.

The first of three key findings from the study – titled “Distinct generation of subjective vividness and confidence during naturalistic memory retrieval in angular gyrus” – is that humans are able to evaluate the vividness of their memories. Second, such a process of evaluation, or meta-judgment, can be disrupted by stimulating the angular gyrus (AnG), an area of the brain widely seen as key to the subjective experience of remembering.

Third, our ability to assess vividness is distinct from our judgments of confidence in the accuracy of what we remember, suggesting our brains operate at least two metacognitive systems for our subjective memory.

As part of the study, subjects watched episodes of the sci-fi television series “Black Mirror” and were asked questions relating to the vividness, confidence, and accuracy of their recollections.

First author Zou said the study improved our understanding of the neuromechanism underpinning metacognition, often defined as an awareness of one’s own thought processes.

She suggested that could have the potential to improve how we monitor our experiences, such as by helping us to identify our mistakes and guide future behavior.

“A potential future direction for research is to exploit what other information beyond vividness is being used for metacognition when we evaluate our own memories, as it might provide new insights into the route towards improving such introspective ability,” she said.

A third-year graduate student at the University of Oregon, Zou was previously a research assistant in Kwok’s laboratory, which focuses on the study of episodic memory, metacognition, and other higher cognitive processes in primate species.

Read here about Duke Kunshan’s interdisciplinary major in behavioral science. Follow Professor Kwok on Twitter @kwokszechai

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