Our ability to make sense of our surroundings, to learn, to act and to think all depend on constant, nimble interactions between perception and memory.
But to accomplish this, the brain has to keep the two distinct; otherwise, incoming data streams could interfere with representations of previous stimuli and cause us to overwrite or misinterpret important contextual information.
Compounding that challenge, a body of research hints that the brain does not neatly partition short-term memory function exclusively into higher cognitive areas like the prefrontal cortex. Instead, the sensory regions and other lower cortical centers that detect and represent experiences may also encode and store memories of them. And yet those memories can’t be allowed to intrude on our perception of the present, or to be randomly rewritten by new experiences.
A paper published recently in Nature Neuroscience may finally explain how the brain’s protective buffer works. A pair of researchers showed that, to represent current and past stimuli simultaneously without mutual interference, the brain essentially “rotates” sensory information to encode it as a memory.
[Researcher Alexandra] Libby is interested in the implications of their results for artificial intelligence research, particularly in the design of architectures useful for AI networks that have to multitask.