Science behind the mundane: Here’s what your brain is doing during everyday activities

ST. LOUIS — How the does the human mind deal with the mundane? Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis analyzed how the brain processes everyday events. Their report finds our minds go to great lengths to assess and remember normal, uneventful activities like sipping coffee or going shopping.

Zachariah Reagh, an assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, in collaboration with study co-author Charan Ranganath from UC Davis, used functional MRI scanners to monitor the brain activity of a group of participants as they watched a series of short videos depicting everyday scenes. For example, men and women going grocery shopping or working on laptops in a café.

“They were very ordinary scenes,” Prof. Reagh says in a university release. “No car chases or anything.”

After, participants had to immediately describe the scenes they just watched with as much detail as they could remember. This approach produced fascinating results. To start, different parts of the brain worked together to understand and remember a given everyday situation.

More specifically, networks located within the front part of the temporal lobe (a brain region long considered integral to memory) focused on the subject of the video regardless of their surroundings. Meanwhile, the posterior medial network, which involves the parietal lobe toward the back of the brain, usually paid more attention to the environment. Then, Prof. Reagh explains all those networks sent information to the hippocampus, where the signals combined to form a cohesive scene.

Man's brain
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Study authors had already used very simple objects and scenarios during earlier projects. For instance, a picture of an apple on a beach, to study the different building blocks of memories. However, Prof. Reagh adds that life isn’t so simple.

“I wondered if anyone had done these types of studies with dynamic real-word situations and, shockingly, the answer was no,” the researcher notes.

This latest research indicates the mind constructs mental sketches of people that can then be transposed from one location to another, similar to how an animator can copy and paste a character into different scenes.

“It may not seem intuitive that your brain can create a sketch of a family member that it moves from place to place, but it’s very efficient,” Prof. Reagh explains.

Some participants were able to remember scenes in the café and grocery store more completely and accurately in comparison to others. Prof. Reagh says that those with the clearest memories used the exact same neural patterns while recalling scenes that they had used while watching the clips originally.

“The more you can bring those patterns back online while describing an event, the better your overall memory,” Reagh continues.

Today, however, Prof. Reagh admits that it is still unclear why certain people are better than others at reproducing the thought patterns needed to access memory. However, it is clear that many things can get in the way.

“A lot can go wrong when you try to retrieve a memory,” the study author explains.

Even memories that we swear are crisp and vivid may not reflect reality.

“I tell my students that your memory is not a video camera. It doesn’t give you a perfect representation of what happened. Your brain is telling you a story,” Reagh adds.

Moving forward, researchers want to conduct further studies by analyzing the brain activity and memory of people watching more complicated stories. Prof. Reagh is just one of the Washington University faculty members involved with the research cluster “The Storytelling Lab: Bridging Science, Technology, and Creativity,” a segment of the larger Incubator for Transdisciplinary Futures.

“The Storytelling Lab fits perfectly with the scientific questions that I find most exciting,” Prof. Reagh concludes. “I want to understand how the brain creates and remembers narratives.”

The study is published in the journal Nature Communications.

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