Location & dates EMBL Heidelberg, Germany 3 - 4 Nov 2016
Deadlines Registration closed

Session 4 - The normal, the off-scale, and the extended human memory

In this session we will consider a range of different types of memory and memory performance.

First, we will consider the formation, retention, and loss of memories. A near-universal feature of the lives of human beings is a predictable trajectory of memory performance. Everyone is familiar with changes in episodic (time and place) memory, where performance accelerates in young children, starts to decrease slowly in adults, and then declines more rapidly in older adults. But the mechanisms underlying these changes remain undefined. Yee Lee Shing will discuss the differences underlying the functioning of episodic memory in children and adults, and will consider the particularly damaging physical changes that occur in the human brain during senescence.

Next, we will look at extreme memory. Different kinds of extreme memory are a source of fascination for those with “normal” memory, but can have a range of outcomes for those with such types of memory. A very familiar type of this memory is sometimes demonstrated tournaments where individuals are required to recall long strings of numbers or names. But people with one type of extreme memory, called Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM), can essentially replay decades of information and can retrieve events specifically and clearly. While on the surface this may seem to be an advantage, people possessing HSAM may also suffer from not being able to forget certain events. Curiously, other types of memory performance and general cognition in people with HSAM seem well within population averages. Craig Stark will present the state of the art and current questions about how superior memory works for these people.

Finally, we will discuss a very special case of information retention and memory maintenance, and what can be done to extend the preservation of human knowledge both at the individual and population level. Whatever the problems with human memory, they pale in comparison to digital memory. Floppy disks, flash drives, and even cloud storage systems cannot be counted on even in the relatively short term, let alone in perpetuity. The storage media themselves decay, and the technologies to read the information on the media eventually become obsolete. In this session we will hear about what could be a significant advance in memory storage. Nick Goldman will describe a system based on the ability of DNA to store information stably, and with fewer concerns about the technology to read the information. In the general discussion we will attempt to integrate the observations of these speakers to consider the potentials and the limits of human and digital memory.