A Harvard Neuroscientist Explains How Memory Shapes Your Reality

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There is an artificial boundary between perception and cognition, Harvard and Bar Ilan University neuroscientist Moshe Bar explained, during a talk today at the Global Brain Health and Performance Summit presented by The Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center.

Bar described how memory, anticipation, and prediction reinforce one another to enable the brain to formulate a clear perception of reality, allowing people to constantly process new objects, people, and situations. He explained that “perception” covers the brain’s absorption of images and other stimuli, “cognition” refers to executive control, memory, and other higher-order aspects of brain function. Bar noted that the two are far more fluid than these set categories would suggest. “Perception relies on existing knowledge as much as incoming information,” Bar explained.

The brain is constantly drawing on its reserves of experience and memory in order to understand its immediate conditions. According to Bar, it uses these resources to form predictions about what even the most basic environmental inputs could mean. “The brain tries to anticipate what’s coming based on knowledge of our experience,” he argued. It’s constantly generating “guesses,” about the nature of its immediate surroundings and situations based on visual inputs, and these guesses are connected back to an existing body of memory.

When someone recognizes an object’s purpose despite never having seen or used it before, Bar explained, it’s because of “contextual associations networks” in the brain. The brain doesn’t have to start from scratch every time it encounters a complex or confusing physical object—it’s used a television remote before, even if it hasn’t seen the exact television remote The same goes for more basic objects: the brain doesn’t have to re-learn how a chair works every time it’s presented with one, and for people ― the brain can work its way through interactions with total strangers thanks to the interplay between memory and perception, and its constant reference back to similar individuals or situations. “Associations are the building blocks of predictions,” Bar explained. And those predictions are the basis for how the “proactive” brain works.

This piece is part of a special brain health initiative curated by Dr. Ali Rezai, Director of Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center’s Stanley D. and Joan H. Ross Center for Brain Health and Performance. For more, visit The Huffington Post’s Brain Health page.