How memories shape our perception of the present

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New faculty member J. Benjamin Hutchinson explores how our experiences from the past influence what we pay attention to in the present. His findings could contribute to our understanding of ADHD and other learning conditions as well as lead to strategies to help people stay focused when attending to a task. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

By Thea Singer

News at Northeastern

What are mem­o­ries made of? Do dif­ferent parts of our brain light up when we per­ceive an event than when we remember it after­ward? What role does memory play in directing our atten­tion to spe­cific details in our surroundings?

Cog­ni­tive neu­ro­sci­en­tist J. Ben­jamin Hutchinson, who recently joined Northeastern’s fac­ulty, is on a quest to find out. The answers could con­tribute to our under­standing of atten­tion deficit hyper­ac­tivity dis­order, or ADHD, and other learning con­di­tions as well as lead to strate­gies to help people stay focused when attending to a task.

In gen­eral, memory and atten­tion have been studied as sep­a­rate aspects of cog­ni­tion,” says Hutchinson, assis­tant pro­fessor in the Depart­ment of Psy­chology, who comes to North­eastern from a post­doc­toral fel­low­ship at Princeton Uni­ver­sity. “By rec­og­nizing their inter­ac­tion, I want to know: How does infor­ma­tion from the past, in the form of mem­o­ries, influ­ence what we pay atten­tion to in the present?”

New faculty member J. Benjamin Hutchinson explores how our experiences from the past influence what we pay attention to in the present. His findings could contribute to our understanding of ADHD and other learning conditions as well as lead to strategies to help people stay focused when attending to a task. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

Con­sider a simple example: You’re gazing into a sea of strangers. Sud­denly, your eyes lock onto a familiar face. What drew you there? It wasn’t the present scene, but rather a memory. It directs your atten­tion like a dart. “The better we under­stand how atten­tion is imple­mented in the brain, the better we will be able treat symp­toms that inter­fere with it, such as those that char­ac­terize ADHD,” he says.

Scan­ning for clues

Hutchinson’s pri­mary tool in his research is func­tional mag­netic res­o­nance imaging, or fMRI, which looks at the brain in slices, front to back, like a loaf of bread, and tracks blood flow to its var­ious parts. The nature of his research—which uses human sub­jects who lie in the mas­sive machine as he observes and ana­lyzes brain areas that light up and go dark—made North­eastern a nat­ural fit.

The new Inter­dis­ci­pli­nary Sci­ence and Engi­neering Com­plex will house a brand-​​new fMRI machine,” he says. “It’s just one example of how the uni­ver­sity is ambi­tiously expanding its research capa­bil­i­ties and fur­thering its already excel­lent quality of edu­ca­tion for both under­grad­uate and grad­uate stu­dents. It is a very exciting time to be here.”

In his lab, Hutchinson will con­tinue researching how our memory sys­tems favor the pro­cessing of new infor­ma­tion over old, pro­viding insight into the ways we learn. He will also expand his explo­ration into the mech­a­nisms by which memory influ­ences atten­tion, breaking “memory” into its var­ious types, including “episodic” memory, which processes spe­cific events (say, what you had for break­fast), to “semantic” memory, which processes fac­tual infor­ma­tion (the name of the first U.S. president).

The data pro­vided by fMRI enables me to look at not just the pat­tern of activity in the brain but also how dif­ferent parts of the brain talk to each other,” he says. “At North­eastern, I hope to develop a com­pre­hen­sive model describing how the sig­nals in the brain that relate to dif­ferent kinds of memory dif­fer­en­tially impact our atten­tion. Unrav­eling these rela­tion­ships could add to a more inte­grated under­standing of how we think and behave.”

(Published with permission from News at Northeastern.)

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