Should a disgusting chocolate bar form a new memory? Image credit: Rob Hogan (CC BY 2.0)

Create or update?

How the brain responds to a surprising event depends on whether it can work out a reason for the surprise.

Our memories contain our expectations about the world that we can retrieve to make predictions about the future. For example, most people would expect a chocolate bar to taste good, because they have previously learned to associate chocolate with pleasure. When a surprising event occurs, such as tasting an unpalatable chocolate bar, the brain therefore faces a dilemma. Should it update the existing memory and overwrite the association between chocolate and pleasure? Or should it create an additional memory? In the latter case, the brain would form a new association between chocolate and displeasure that competes with, but does not overwrite, the original one between chocolate and pleasure.

Previous studies have shown that surprising events tend to create new memories unless the existing memory is briefly reactivated before the surprising event occurs. In other words, retrieving old memories makes them more malleable. Samuel Gershman and colleagues have now developed a computational model for how the brain decides whether to update an old memory or create a new one. The idea at the heart of the model is that the brain will attempt to infer what caused the surprising event. The reason the chocolate bar tastes unpalatable, for example, might be because it was old and had spoiled. Every time the brain infers a new possible cause for a surprising event, it will create an additional memory to store this new set of expectations. In the future we will know that spoiled chocolate bars taste bad.

However, if the brain cannot infer a new cause for the surprising event — because, for example, there appears to be nothing unusual about the unpalatable chocolate bar — it will instead opt to update the existing memory. The next time we buy a chocolate bar, we will have slightly lower expectations about how good it will taste. The dilemma of whether to update an existing memory or create a new one thus boils down to the question: is the surprising event the consequence of a new cause or an old one? This theory implies that retrieving a memory nudges the brain to infer that its associated cause is once again active and, since this is an old cause, it means that the memory will be eligible for updating.

Many experiments have been performed on the topic of modifying memories, but this is the first computational model that offers a unifying explanation for the results. The next step is to work out how to apply the model, which is phrased in abstract terms, to networks of neurons that are more biologically realistic.

To find out more

Read the eLife research paper on which this eLife digest is based: “The computational nature of memory modification” (March 15, 2017).
eLife is an open-access journal that publishes outstanding research in the life sciences and biomedicine.
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