A Biological Computer

An article from the series "Elephants & Butterflies" – Science in a nutshell

Cognitive neuroscientist and Einstein Professor Roberto Cabeza is tracking down memory in the human brain. By examining its activity patterns, he is looking for the moment when new connections between stored information spark creativity in the brain.

Studying the way memories are stored and retrieved in the brain is like trying to understand an alien computer which contains parts and functionality that you do not yet understand. To some extent, the brain is like a biological computer – a living tissue that is constantly adapting to changing circumstances. 

We can look at the brain on many different levels from the chemical and genetic level, involving cells and circuits, to a higher level, which involves the whole brain and the way it interacts with the outside world. Memory can be traced back to the molecules that are altered when a new memory is formed, to the cells that change their morphology, to the circuits that form during these processes, and to the different areas of the brain that interact. I primarily focus on the different regions of the brain and on the brain as a whole. My background is in cognitive psychology, which is the study of cognition and cognitive abilities, such as memory on a behavioural level. Linking this approach to theories about the brain is what we call cognitive neuroscience.

We use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in my lab, which can measure changes in blood flow in living humans when a specific region of the brain is used. This allows us to investigate the nature of information in the human brain by looking at the patterns of activity at a particular moment, second to second, while the person is learning a new piece of information and later tries to remember it.  

I hope that understanding the basic mechanisms of memory will allow us to develop evidence-based training methods, which will help older adults to improve their memories. Going deeper and understanding the workings of nature will certainly have a strong impact on humanity over the long term. The effects of scientific endeavor can sometimes only be felt many years later.

We look at a particular form of creativity that helps us solve a problem by finding relationships between information in the brain we could not access before

As a researcher, I am constantly changing, just as science itself is constantly changing. For example, I previously studied the effects of emotion on memory and then I looked into autobiographical memory, which are the memories that form of our own lives. Here in Berlin, we have started working on the interaction between memory and creativity. Creativity drives progress, so it is a fundamental concept worthy of investigation. We look at a particular form of creativity that helps us solve a problem by finding relationships between information in the brain we could not access before, such as sudden insight. The information necessary for this is stored in our memory, so creativity depends on memory: Without prior knowledge, we cannot create anything. Functional neuroimaging shows us that one of the regions of the brain that engages in moments of sudden insight is the hippocampus, which is a key region for memory. 

We are now studying the way the hippocampus engages with other regions of the brain to illuminate the neural processes behind these moments of insight. And we will also examine how these are affected by ageing. One of our key questions is: Can creativity allow us to remain flexible and maintain plasticity in the brain as a way of counteracting memory loss? We are all constantly complaining about our memories, so I think this is a question well worth answering.

Transcript: Mirco Lomoth