Learning and memory are key functions of the brain and ones that attract a lot of attention and research — and interest from normal folk like us. After all who wouldn’t like to know how to use one’s brain to learn and remember things better.
These two functions are, however, closely related. Memorising things is a part of learning — so are they part of the same process or part of separate processes in the brain? And does this happen in parallel or sequentially?
Most of us would probably assume that they happen in parallel — lots does in the brain — it is pretty complex. Similarly disentangling these processes is difficult — when we go about things in daily life we are drawing on our memories as we encounter familiar things and do familiar processes but when we encounter novel things we then need to learn and this seems to happen seamlessly
Researchers around Ruy Gómez-Ocádiz of the Insitut Pasteur in France have now given insight into this with some pretty innovative research.
For this they transported mice to a virtual world — yup, you read that correctly — researchers are now using virtual reality with mice! I will let you imagination run with that thought. This allows researchers to guide what the mice see and experience with more accuracy and therefore draw firmer conclusions. In this research it allows them to manipulate and distinguish between learning and remembering by transporting them to a whole new world so they can see learning in action.
What did they find?
Yes, they found that there is separate circuit in the brain’s hippocampus that switches between learning or remembering — the hippocampus is a well-researched area deep in the brain that is critical for memory formation but also memory recall and for navigation.
This shows that your brain therefore switches, sometimes rapidly, between modes. When you encounter novelty it switches to learning mode, and when in familiar territory you are in remembering mode.
And going through this article it probably switched a few times — but hopefully the learning mode also so that you remember this for later!