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Cognitive neuroscientist Meg Schlichting’s memory research could change the way we teach students

Meg Schlichting standing in front of her desk - in the background her computer has an image of a human brain on it

Cognitive neuroscientist Meg Schlichting of the Department of Psychology. Photo: Diana Tyszko.

In the film Memento, the protagonist played by Guy Pearce is unable to form new memories. “That’s what it would be like to not have a hippocampus — the part of our brains that plays an important role in forming new memories,” says cognitive neuroscientist Meg Schlichting of the Department of Psychology in the Faculty of Arts & Science.

“One thing humans are really good at is making complicated decisions, and using our memories to draw associations between different experiences,” says Schlichting, whose Budding Minds Lab focuses on how we form and recall memories, and how we can use what we know to make new choices.

After an advanced placement psychology class in high school inspired her to become a scientist, Schlichting pursued her undergraduate degree at the University of Pennsylvania. She then attended graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin, where she earned a PhD in Psychology and conducted research for six years before coming to Canada. “I’d been saying for years how much I wanted to live in Toronto,” says Schlichting. “It’s such a vibrant city.”

In just over a year, Schlichting has assembled a team of talented graduate and undergraduate researchers to help her study how connecting new information with existing memories effectively deepens learning and supports complex decisions.

She is especially interested in how kids, teens, and adults might accomplish these tasks differently due to developmental differences in their brain’s structure and function.

Smart memories

An example of this could be going to daycare to pick up your child and seeing one of the other children there with a man who you learn is their father. “If the next time you see that child they’re with a woman you’ve never seen before, you’re going to form a memory that connects across those experiences and store that memory for future use,” says Schlichting.

“What you haven’t seen — but your memory kind of ‘knows’ — is that the man and the woman might share a relationship: they might both be the child’s parents,” she says. “Of course, that may or may not be correct, but your brain’s going to store the relationship between those individuals so they are now connected as far as you’re concerned.

Later, you might be at the grocery store and see the man from daycare with someone and maybe you can tell it’s a woman, but you can’t make out her identity. Your memory might help you anticipate that it’s the woman from the daycare.”

Schlichting and team use structural and functional MRI systems in their research, focusing on the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex. During functional imaging, subjects complete a series of tests.

“First, we’ll tell them something like ‘Brad Pitt goes with a harp’ and then later they learn that the same picture of a harp goes with a picture of a candle. So, the question we put to subjects while in the MRI is ‘can you relate Brad Pitt to the candle?’ because they’re both ‘friends’ with the harp.”

In these studies, Schlichting and her team are able to measure changes in blood oxygenation levels in the brain, a correlate of neural activity. “What we’re finding is that 18-year-old brains aren’t the same as even 25-year-old brains. They don’t have the neural machinery that adults have. The hippocampus likely continues to change through your teens, and the prefrontal cortex changes into your 30s.”

Memory and the maturing brain

The importance of such information is that reasoning ability is one of the biggest predictors of academic achievement, and even later career success.

Schlichting and team are now working to find out how kids and teens draw upon memories to make highly complicated decisions to learn. For example, Schlichting says, a teacher might draw an analogy in a science class between the layers of the Earth and a peach.

“You have to have knowledge about the different parts of a peach, but then you also have to be able to ignore irrelevant elements like the fact that the peach is really sweet and really small compared to the Earth,” says Schlichting.

“While the adult teacher might think it’s a great analogy, the student might be stuck thinking too much about the peach itself, not because they’re not smart, but because their brains work in a way where they can’t just process and appreciate the analogy and then move on,” she says.

Schlichting hopes to eventually bring her research to bear on instances where children are struggling with a particular task to figure which stage of the learning process the problem is coming from and find where the process isn’t working. “That could help suggest strategies to overcome the things that are tripping them up,” she says.

“These sorts of abilities are important for standardized testing and getting into university, which has long-lasting outcomes in terms of quality of life.”