In order to make more money, people who make digital cameras and printer paper will tell you that their products are the only way to store memories. Scientists, however, think they know better. Memories are stored in the brain, duh. But now researchers at the University of Missouri's Brain Imaging Center are using brain scanners to figure out where in the brain memories live, and how they work with other brain functions.
Nelson Cowan, the center's director, used an MRI scanner to find the area of the brain responsible for abstract working memory. "Working memory," Cowan explains in a video press release, "is the small amount of information we keep in mind at any moment and we use this information to help us complete various tasks."
Working memory can assign images to bits of information to give them more meaning or help you remember better. Your working memory may be the reason why, when you call someone, you think of what they look like. (Or it could just be because you have a picture stored on your cell phone.)
In a recent experiment, Cowan scanned research subjects' brains while they performed a series of tasks that required them to use their working memories. He compared scans of the brain in action with scans of the brain at rest. In the course of the study, Cowan learned that working memory holds sounds as well, which is why hearing certain songs might trigger memories. This working memory area is the only part of the brain that responds to both auditory and visual triggers.
Earlier research has shown that people with schizophrenia hold fewer bits of information in their working memories. Working memory also functions differently in people with learning disabilities.
"Various kinds of learning disability involve working memory deficit," says Cowan. "The person can't remember instructions or can't comprehend language fully because there's a lack of enough information being held in mind at one time. We need to know whether that arises from a visual deficit or an acoustic/verbal deficit or, in some cases, a deficit in the more central focal attention. And this area ought to be able to help us to learn that answer because we can find out whether the response of that area is deficient in someone with learning disabilities."
Cowan hopes further research into working memory will help doctors and scientists to understand autism better, too, now that it's been proven that it doesn't come from vaccines.After the jump, a video of the Mizzou brain scanner at work: