Editor’s Note: This is part of a series of dispatches from the Knight Science Journalism Program’s 2021-22 Project Fellows.
I’m sitting in a tiny room lined with soundproofing foam. On my head sits a bright red EEG cap, held tightly in place with Velcro straps under my chin. I have electrodes — 64 of them, to be exact — tucked into my hair, glued behind my ears, one stuck on each temple, and two more affixed (gently) under my eyes. Justin and Ziyao, two graduate students in the lab I’m visiting at the University of Texas at Austin, guide me to a tan upholstered chair that’s exactly the wrong depth to be comfortable and begin fine-tuning the electrodes (wiggle one, replace another). They point out the video camera stuck up near the ceiling, instruct me not to blink during the tasks I’m about to be presented with, and then walk out of the room and close the door. Suddenly I’m alone with only a computer screen, a video game controller, and my incompetent memory.
The lab I’m visiting, run by neurocognitive researcher Jarrod Lewis-Peacock, is part of my deep dive into the science of forgetting — a field that, over the last decade, has become an area of research in its own right. What has gradually become clear to those who study forgetting is that it’s not simply the opposite of remembering but involves separate sets of mechanisms that bear closer examination. And what these scientists are finding has informed our understanding of not only how to use our brains more successfully but also what it means to be human.
Right now, though, this human is feeling confused, awkward, and oddly exposed. The task I’ve been assigned feels like a test aimed at revealing my deepest vulnerabilities and then grading me on them. I have huge, gaping holes in my memory – something I’ve largely ignored for decades – but now here I sit, pitting my Swiss-cheesed brain against the brains of undergraduate students 20 years younger than I am. I’m clearly a glutton for punishment.
Tiny photos pop up on the screen, flashing past in quick succession, and I’m supposed to indicate whether I’ve seen one of them before. Left button for yes, right for no. A vent in the wall across from me feeds cool air onto my face and all I want to do is blink. My eyes immediately feel tired. To be fair, the informed consent form clearly listed boredom and eye strain as the primary risks. (I laughed when I originally read it. Joke’s on me.)
The task they’ve given me aims to assess whether shifting attention between two different images, essentially pitting one against another, weakens long-term recall, in order to tease apart the relationship between short- and long-term memory. As far as I can tell, however, I can’t remember any of these photos at all.
“They all look the same!” I say aloud, forgetting for a moment that Justin and Ziyao are listening from the next room. Black and white photos of faces zoom past. Wait, that one had a mustache. I press the left button. INCORRECT pops up on the screen in bright red letters. “Dammit,” I mutter and then press the button to try again.
Our identities are shaped not only by what we remember but what we forget.
This time, I try to scrutinize the faces closely as they whiz by: One is wide-set, another has bangs, this woman has earrings, that man has darker skin. I’m paying such close attention that I run out of time. LATE, the screen yells at me in yellow. “Come on!” I’m about to curse. Perhaps they should have listed annoyance as a risk.
On the third try, the images shift from faces to black and white scenes. I’m better with these. I see more variability in architecture and trees than I see in faces. A kitchen interior, a European plaza with cobblestone streets, a cabin in stark relief, a snow-covered mountain range. I start to feel more confident as a green CORRECT appears. I straighten up, careful not to disturb the wires trailing down my face and back, and smile as I settle in for the ride.
Ultimately, this experiment aims to assess whether keeping information in working memory that’s no longer useful can harm someone’s ability to access it later on. The EEG tracks how intently I’m thinking about these photo memories, and Lewis-Peacock will use that to figure out whether my stronger responses correspond to worse performance on a surprise task at the end.
In the end, I spend nearly two hours trying to discriminate among those tiny black-and-white photos and to remember details of each of them. Then I pull my hair back into a bun, throw on a baseball cap to hide the EEG conducting gel unevenly distributed throughout my scalp, and head to the airport for my flight home. It will be months before I find out how my results match up to those of the undergraduate students who sat in this uncomfortable chair. But the process itself is proving at least as enlightening as the results.
Our identities are shaped not only by what we remember but what we forget. By studying how we do that, what drives it and why, cognitive neuroscience researchers like Lewis-Peacock can begin to understand how to better differentiate healthy from pathological forgetting. They can start to explain why multitasking is terrible for long-term memory. They may even be able to help me understand why I have a big gap in my memory where my father used to be.
Perhaps I’ll be able to fill that memory gap someday. Or, perhaps, I’ll learn enough about the emerging science of forgetting to finally embrace these holes in my memory as not a bug but a benefit.
Lauren Gravitz is an award-winning science journalist and editor who lives in San Diego, CA. She is working on a book proposal about the neuroscience of her Swiss-cheesed memory.