Among the most surprising discoveries about memory has been the realisation that remembering a past event is not like picking a DVD off the shelf and playing it back. Remembering involves a process of reconstruction. We store assorted features of an event as representations that are distributed around the brain.
In simple terms, visual features are represented near the back of the brain in the areas specialised for visual processing; sounds in auditory processing regions close to the ears; and smells in the olfactory system that lies behind the nose.
To experience the rich, vivid “re-living” of a past event that is remembering, we fit these features together into a representation of what took place.
A lot of stuff happens in our lifetimes, and so it makes sense that our brains would have evolved some efficient memory strategies. We don’t try to remember every single event in its entirety. Instead, we store the elements of an event, and put them together in different ways to make different memories. The downside is that similar events that share a number of features may be more difficult to remember.
Our experiment was designed to investigate this effect.