It’s no coincidence that, when recalling a tragedy, we ask where someone was: “Where were you when President Kennedy was shot?”
Psychologists hypothesize that we lock in that memory by linking it to a where, that integrating many stimuli together helps us remember something particularly important. They call this process episodic memory formation: the locking of ideas and objects to a single place and time, to forming associations between different stimuli.
Using a a new process that involves an injected virus and a chemical “remote control for the brain,” psychologists are now a little closer to understanding it better.
Researchers at Dartmouth and the University of North Carolina announced Tuesday that new evidence indicates that the retrosplenial cortex—a little-studied region near the center of the brain—is important in the formation of this kind of information, called episodic memories. Specifically, they believe the retrosplenial cortex may help make sense of the burst of new stimuli in a new environment: It may be the place where the body’s senses are integrated.
When you walk into someone’s office, your brain records the location of the pieces of furniture, screens, bookshelves and windows inside, said David Bucci, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Dartmouth and one of the authors of the paper. Your brain may not remember the arrangement of that office if nothing important happens inside—in fact, you’ll probably forget it—but if something memorable does happen, you will commit the setup of that room to your memory. That room will be forever linked to what you learned inside it.