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Brain’s navigation center calls on mental state as well as physical environment, Stanford researchers find

Neurons in the brain.
Aug 6 2021
Faculty, Fellow, Research, Stanford

Can you think of what you had for breakfast? Calling up this memory will almost certainly make you think of not only where you were at the time — perhaps sitting at your kitchen table — but also what was on your mind: reviewing your goals for the day, managing family chaos or perusing the latest news.

New research by Stanford Medicine neuroscientists suggests that the earliest stages of memory formation may incorporate awareness of our surroundings as well as the internal context — such as emotions or thoughts — that mark those memories.

The findings, published Aug. 6 in Neuron, could require an update to the common view in neuroscience that navigation was the original purpose of memory. According to this view, creatures evolved good spatial memories so they could retrace their steps to valuable resources like food, water or mates while avoiding sites where they encountered threats. The idea was that more subjective aspects of memory were layered on top of this foundation.

Study lead author, Isabel Low, is a 2019 SIGF Fellow.

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