How the brain builds panoramic memory

Two brain regions that are involved in creating panoramic memories have now been identified by neuroscientists. These brain regions, known as the OPA and RSC, help us to merge fleeting views of our surroundings into a seamless, 360-degree panorama.

When you “pan” out your memories, you can picture not only your home and school, but also nearby buildings, homes and shops across the street. Not only conceptually, but also physically, the brain is a complex structure, but it’s not hard to derive the fact that this phenomenon exists and comes from some region in the cerebrum. However recently, MIT neuroscientists were able to locate the two brain regions involved in creating these panoramic memories.

The researchers suspected that areas involved in processing scenes¸ the occipital place area (OPA), the retrosplenial complex (RSC), and parahippocampal place area (PPA)¸might also be involved in generating panoramic memories of a place such as a street corner.

To test this, they used immersive virtual reality headsets, which allowed them to show people many different panoramic scenes. In this study, the researchers showed participants images from 40 street corners in Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood. The images were presented in two ways: Half the time, participants saw a 100-degree stretch of a 360-degree scene, but the other half of the time, they saw two noncontinuous stretches of a 360-degree scene.

Brain scans revealed that when participants saw two images that they knew were linked, the response patterns in the RSC and OPA regions were similar.

However, this was not the case for image pairs that the participants had not seen as linked. This suggests that the RSC and OPA, but not the PPA, are involved in building panoramic memories of our surroundings, the researchers said.

“Our hypothesis was that as we begin to build memory of the environment around us, there would be certain regions of the brain where the representation of a single image would start to overlap with representations of other views from the same scene,” Robertson, postdoc at MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research and a junior fellow of the Harvard Society of Fellow, said.

In another experiment, the researchers tested whether one image could “prime” the brain to recall an image from the same panoramic scene. To do this, they showed participants a scene and asked them whether it had been on their left or right when they first saw it. Before that, they showed them either another image from the same street corner or an unrelated image. Participants performed much better when primed with the related image.

“After you have seen a series of views of a panoramic environment, you have explicitly linked them in memory to a known place,” Robertson says. “They also evoke overlapping visual representations in certain regions of the brain, which is implicitly guiding your upcoming perceptual experience.”

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