Memory is a critical aspect of many of our behaviors. We use memory to find our way around, to detect a familiar face in a crowd, and to keep track of our ideas as we speak and write. One powerful way that memory can affect so many of our behaviors is by helping to guide what we pay attention to. For example, in a messy kitchen, you can use your memory for where mugs are typically stored in order to find one. Therefore, although memory is often studied for its own sake - for example, to understand how we are able to reminisce about the past, or how that process can go wrong - it is also critically important to understand how we can use memory in the service of guiding our attention and actions. The goal of this project is to understand how the functioning of the human brain enables us to use memories of the past to direct our attention, and the consequences that has for how quickly and accurately we can accomplish tasks. In doing so, this work will highlight the critical importance of memory for moment-to-moment attention. This will fill an important gap in scientific research, which often studies attention and memory in isolation. It will highlight the fundamentally interactive nature of our past and current experiences, with implications for how learning and remembering in educational settings can affect attention and future learning in a feedback loop.
This project therefore seeks to determine the neural mechanisms by which memories guide attention, focusing on the memories stored in a key brain region that is critical for building new memories and retrieving old ones: the hippocampus. This will be accomplished in two Aims, which use multiple methods: functional magnetic resonance imaging, studies of patients with brain lesions, eye tracking, and measures of behavioral accuracy and response times. In Aim 1, the project will determine the neural circuits for memory-guided attention and their relationship to behavior. The main hypothesis is that a brain network including the hippocampus and prefrontal and visual cortices allows us to use memory to update attentional goals and anticipate task-relevant information before it appears. This hypothesis will be tested using a novel approach of characterizing interactions between brain regions (representational connectivity), which enables investigation of synchrony in information content between regions. In Aim 2, this project will establish how memory and attention jointly guide visual exploration. The main hypothesis is that hippocampal memory retrieval of prior attentional goals will influence visual exploration, attention, and memory in novel situations. This work will have innovative implications for education, e.g., the use of eye tracking to identify if students are remembering and attending to relevant information, even if they cannot verbally describe it. Together, these two Aims will start to uncover the powerful way that memories can influence our in-the-moment attentional behaviors.
This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.