Alison Preston

Alison Preston, associate professor of psychology, and psychology graduate student Margaret Schlichting found that subjects who learned with mental rest performed better than those with no rest.

Photo Credit: Rachel Zein | Daily Texan Staff

A study conducted by two UT psychology researchers concluded that mental rest and reflection on past learning activities can help boost upcoming learning activities.

According to the findings published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Monday, the processing of prior memories is associated with subsequent learning. Prior knowledge can facilitate new learning as opposed to interfering with it, which was commonly believed by scientists.

Psychology graduate student Margaret Schlichting co-authored the study.

“It has been known for years that processes at play in the brain during periods of mental rest are critically important for memory,” Schlichting said. “But, until our study, it was unknown whether or not these same brain processes during mental rest might actually boost people’s ability to learn in later situations.”

During their research, Schlichting and co-author Alison Preston, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience, asked participants to memorize different series of photo pairs. In between the assigned activities, the participants rested and were free to think about anything they wanted. Brain scans of the participants afterward showed that those who used the time to reflect on the learning done did better on upcoming tests.

When information from two tasks overlapped, the researchers found that the reflection helped participants retain the material and allowed them to make connections that helped them absorb upcoming information.

Preston said the results of the study can be applied to a wide audience.

“The findings are a general application for all people because we didn’t look at a specific age or group of people,” Preston said. “These mechanisms are what occurs in the human brain. A lot happens in your brain when you’re resting. Your brain is replaying recent experiences — the goal being to make memories lasting.”

Schlichting said the results from the research are important because they can be implemented in real-world learning processes, such as learning in a classroom environment.

“Work from our research group and others has shown that having strong prior knowledge about a topic may benefit you when you try to learn new, related information,” Schlichting said. “For a student, this might mean that regularly studying course materials continually strengthens your knowledge base, making it easier for you to learn new facts later in the semester.”

Physics freshman Javier Leija said the information is helpful, especially for a college student going through a week of exams.

“Cramming before a test is not the most efficient way to prepare for it,” Leija said. “After all, if you give your brain enough time, you will end up being more prepared than what you could accomplish by binge reading.”

A memory means more than a record of events and might even influence how humans perceive and interpret new information to make decisions, according to a new UT psychology study.

Alison Preston, assistant professor of psychology and neurology, led the study on human memories appearing in the July issue of Neuron, a scientific journal. To conduct the study, Preston and a group of UT researchers showed people a series of images with a group of objects and then showed them the same objects, but paired them off in different ways.

The team then analyzed the subjects’ brain activity using an MRI to evaluate how the brain reacted to the changing visuals. Preston said her research demonstrates that linking knowledge across different experiences enhances people’s ability to make novel inferences about the relationships among different events.

“Let’s say you just moved. One day, you see a woman leaving the apartment next door, the day after, you see a man leaving the apartment next door. You may infer they are a couple, even if you never saw them together,” said Dagmar Zeithamova, co-author of the study and researcher at UT’s Center for Learning and Memory. “Previously, we knew you can make such inferences by using logical reasoning, putting the two pieces of information together. However, in this study, we show that your memory is set up to make such inferences for you.”

Additionally, Zeithamova explains that the process of memory making is the bridging of new and old experiences. “When you have a new experience that somehow overlaps with what you already know, your prior knowledge is brought back to your mind and you form a new memory that is already connected to your prior memories,” Zeithamova said.

Another takeaway of their research was a new perspective on memories. “Our memories do not necessarily reflect the exact events that happen to us,” Preston said. “These techniques provide evidence that learning may be an individualized process that depends on the unique experiences of the person,”

Preston said she hopes their work could be used to develop educational strategies to enhance learning in practical settings, such as the classroom and the medical field.

It can be painfully obvious when our memories fail us — when we can’t remember a person’s name or what we did last Friday night. But Alison Preston, professor of psychology and neurobiology, focuses on the more positive aspects of memory. Memory in the brain is about much more than just storage (or lack thereof). The memories we store inform how we process new experiences and allow us to draw useful, ambitious inferences about our world — often without even knowing it. Preston studies how we use memory to combine information across different events to understand how experiences relate. She also does research on memory deficits in schizophrenia and the influence of attention on memory.

Daily Texan: You study memory in the brain. What’s the focus of your research on memory?
Alison Preston:
My lab in particular studies a specific form of memory. It’s what we typically think of as memory — the individual events of our lives. These can be as mundane as what we had for breakfast last Wednesday, or more meaningful things like your first day of college or your very first kiss. These kinds of memories are different from other types like factual knowledge, because they’re tied to specific moments in time and to a specific place. When you think about your first kiss, you might actually mentally transport yourself to the place where it happened and remember who you were with, what you felt like and when it was. That’s different from remembering who the 16th president of the United States is. Factual memory doesn’t have the same kind of detail associated with it. In my lab, we’re really interested in how the brain forms, accesses and uses these memories about events. How do we encode all this detailed information, and what’s involved in the process of remembering it?

DT: You mentioned you study how we use memories about events. What do we use them for?
One of the big questions in my lab right now is how we combine information across time to have more flexible memories and encode the relationships between experiences that may tell us something new about our environment. Imagine you’re leaving your apartment and you notice a new guy leaving a few doors down walking a dog. You might think, ‘Oh, there’s my new neighbor with his dog.’ A couple weeks later and you see that same dog being walked by a different person, a woman. Seeing the dog might lead you to recall the first time you saw that dog and the person the dog was with. While you’re walking to class you actually form a new memory for the relationship between the woman and the dog, and embed it in your pre-existing knowledge. Now, in your brain, you have a representation that she is your neighbor who lives three doors down with her dog and the guy. That’s something your brain does automatically, it allows you to make inferences about the relationship between the man and the woman, and in spite of the fact that you’ve never seen them together.

DT: How do you go about studying this?
We look at this part of your brain called the hippocampus, which is deep in the center of your brain. It’s a structure that’s really important for these forms of memory. We are also interested in how it predicts individual differences in the abilities to link memories. It turns out that, in something like forming memories for the man, the woman and the dog, some people are really good. They’ll reactivate the memories and link them together so they understand their relationship. Other people can’t do tasks like this. They learn that the man goes with the dog and that the woman goes with the dog, but they don’t link two things together.

DT: What are some of the applications for your research?
A lot of what were doing has implications for how students learn in the classroom. As a professor, my job is to teach concepts. You teach concepts by telling students to learn the details, but in the end, I recognize that they’re not going to remember every detail I try to teach them. There are certain core principles that appear across the different lectures, and you cannot assume that students are going to recognize that those core concepts are the same across different details.

DT: So why do we remember unique or important events distinctly?
Personally significant events usually contain a lot of emotional content, and it turns out the parts of the brain that are important for emotion are directly wired up with the parts of the brain that are important for memory. Things that are emotional lead you to form stronger memories that you’re more likely to retrieve at a later time, but it’s not going to be more accurate.

The supercomputer in the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) will receive a $10 million donation to advance the science it does. Astronomy professor Karl Gebhardt is one member of a team using the computer, and he says his research will benefit from the advancements by processing a more enormous amount of data.

Photo Credit: Raveena Bhalara | Daily Texan Staff

The Texas Advanced Computing Center will receive a $10 million private donation to advance the supercomputer center’s data-driven science.

The Peter O’Donnell Foundation has donated in past years to support the University’s research efforts at the computing center, which will use part of the money to construct a computing system to handle and analyze large amounts of data. Alison Preston, an assistant psychology and neurobiology professor, said the donation will help the Preston Lab, where studies are being conducted to show how the brain implements human memory.

“When we test individuals in the CAT scanner, we take thousands of pictures of their brain across the one to one-and-half hour that they are in there,” Preston said. “You need a lot of space to store large quantities of data and that is one thing new resources offered by the funding will provide.”

Preston said the donation provided to the computing center and its advanced data system will help analyze data more quickly.

“Using a personal computer could take several days to fully analyze an individual subject,” Preston said. “It will allow us to speed up the analysis of data, and we can therefore answer the scientific questions that we’re interested in.”

Astronomy professor Karl Gebhardt said he and his team will use the computing center as a data storage and analysis base for their observation of the expansion of the universe.

Gebhardt and his team will trace the detailed expansion of the universe through the Hobby-Eberly Telescope Dark Energy Experiment, he said.

“Our project will have an enormous amount of data, about three to five years total, and we simply do not have the funds within our project and department to handle such an amount,” Gebhardt said.

Printed on Thursday, February 23, 2012 as: Computing center receives $10 million

Professor Alison Preston speaks at the Hot Science-Cool Talks series last Friday. The topic of the night was memories, and how the brain creates, stores, and recalls them.

Photo Credit: Zachary Strain | Daily Texan Staff

Memories directly affect day-to-day actions and therefore help predict the futures, said Alison Preston, an assistant psychology and neurobiology professor.

Preston lectured during the Hot Science-Cool Talks series, “Building Memories for Tomorrow: How our Brain Affects Our Future” on Friday evening. The Hot Science-Cool Talks lecture series was started in November 1999 by the Jackson School of Geosciences and the College of Natural Sciences and has hosted 72 series in total.

“We are actively constructing experience and anticipating what might happen to us whether it’d be a few minutes or a few years from now,” Preston said. “Because of this active constructive process, what we store as memory is actually going beyond direct experience and may reflect things that never happen to us.”

A topic of importance was the function of an area of the brain called the hippocampus, which is essential for the ability to form and recall specific memories.

“Understanding how the hippocampus works can develop interventions that can prove function in clinical populations, enhance memory in aging or potentially help neuropsychiatric disorders,” Preston said.

Jay Banner, director of the Environmental Science Institute and co-founder of the lecture series, said Preston made her lecture easy for all members of the audience to understand.

“She talked about a complex topic in real plain language which was very effective,” Banner said.

A science fair, which featured different activities and information for educators and the public relating to topics discussed in Preston’s presentation, preceded the talk.

“The science done in the University gets disseminated to the K-12 community,” Banner said. “We wanted to have an interesting evening out for everybody and K-12 teachers in particular.”

Lauren Tien, an undeclared geosciences sophomore and lecture series volunteer, helped distribute CDs designed for educators which included past lectures, learning and teaching modules and basic science concepts for their students. She said people with no science background could still benefit from the lecture.

“She explained everything very well, especially for people with no prior psychology experience,” Tien said.

Printed on Monday September 26, 2011 as: Science lecture series opens with memory presentation