La mayoría de nuestras memorias son falsas en cierto punto.
El biólogo, doctor en Neurociencias e investigador de los mecanismo moleculares de la memoria, afirmó que “en el cerebro todo lleva tiempo y esfuerzo”; además, afirmó: “memorizar es un juego entre lo que recordamos y lo que olvidamos”.
The home of decision-making, identity, learning and emotions, among many other things — some of which still remain a mystery — the brain and its functions are an neverending source of material for new scientific research and an impressive amount of books, documentaries and other explorations.
Argentine scientist Pedro Bekischtein is one of the most prestigious researchers in this field and after years of investigation, he has became somewhat of an authority on memory and its intriguing mechanisms.
The brain nowadays seems to be like the rockstar of the organs of the human body, there’s so much research on it?
I would say there are a few things that can explain this. I don’t think that is just a trend or some fashion, it’s a real interest from the readers and the public in general but also from scientists. The scientific community has been growing steadily in the last few years and that’s mainly because of technology. There are some advances in technology that allow us now to answer questions that we could not before. And these are very interesting questions, not only about memory but also about consciousness.
We can now get inside the brain. Neuroscience didn’t exist as now 50 years ago because those years were dominated by psychology. Back then you could analyse behaviour but not get inside the brain and see what was going on there. Nowadays we can.
Out of that large package of disciplines related to neuroscience, you decided to study the memory. Do we choose what to remember and what not?
Yes and no (laughs). There are different ways in which you can acquire information and there are a lot of things that happen to that information as time goes by. For example, if you are studying something and paying attention to that, it’s more likely it will stay in your memory and something that you’re not paying attention to, won’t. But there are cases in which that varies. A classic example is the 9/11. People of a certain age remember when they saw on TV the terrorist attack but they also remember details about that situation such as which clothes they were wearing, who they were with and what happened and the surroundings of that situation before and after. And that’s something you don’t usually remember. You don’t remember that from the day before. So sometimes a relevant event shines a light on some irrelevant information around it but you retain that information as well ... sometimes emotions can help to include details or information of the situation in the memory.
So, as the memory is so dynamic, the things that we remember can be fake?
Yes. In a way we shouldn’t worry about it. I mean, most of our memories are at some point false. And sometimes you might have like a false memory from something that didn’t actually happen. There are experiments in the lab where you can see that, you can actually create a memory from an experience that didn’t happen as long as it’s believable. In cases regarding the law it’s very interesting to analyse this process. There is a lot of evidence that shows that you can’t really trust the testimony of an eyewitness. Especially during the interviews with the police, or with the detectives because the way the interview is carried out can be more or less effective in changing these memories.
So yes. But I think it’s not a bad thing. If we were able to store everything exactly as it happened, we wouldn’t be able to generalize or elaborate concepts of things. Funes el memorioso (Jorge Luis Borges’ famous character), for instance, he had a memory that wasn’t useful for life.
It’s common to hear people say “he has a good memory.” Do some people have better memories?
What most of the people say, in general, is that they have a bad memory. And for me it’s impossible, you just have memory, there’s not such a thing as a “bad memory.” But then you have people who remember lots of things and probably that’s because they have some training, those that we call “brain athletes.” And there are some mnemonic techniques that can help you remember things. But that’s just by training, anyone can do it. It’s not that there is anything particular with their brains. You train, you get it.
One of the curious things you stress in your last book is that, contrary to what we generally think of memory, it has a lot to do with the future. Why is that?
I would say that’s the main function of memory. It’s not about the past, the past just passed. In terms of evolution, we have to survive and the best way to survive is to avoid behaviours that aren’t beneficial. So what humans have —and we are not sure if other animals do— is that the regions of the brain that are activated when remembering are the same ones that will activate when thinking of a future situation. When you think, for example, in what you are going to do in the next few hours or imagine what you’ll be doing next summer, some regions of the brain activate. So that led to the idea that what we call “prospective memory” is like the simulation of possible future.
In that sense, imagination is linked to memory.
Yes, and it makes sense. Because memory is actually a process of reconstruction. If you’re imagining the future, it makes sense that you can imagine the past too as the mechanism is the same or very similar. And there is evidence (for this). I really like the idea of memory being related to imagination, creativity and those kinds of things.
Being neuroscience something related to humans, it’s hard to imagine how you make your experiments. How do neuroscientists work? Do you research with animals?
Yes, we work mainly with rodents, mice and rats. And of course we do some experiments on humans as well. What happens with rodents is that you can’t ask them “Do you remember this?” (laughs). So you have to analyse the behaviour in animals. And we analsze different types of behaviours. We do what’s called a “causal experiment,” so we manipulate, to see what happens with their memories. In humans you can’t do this, so we see how people learn something, whether their brain regions are activated and when.
Is there a boom of neuroscientific research in Argentina?
I think neuroscience research in Argentina is really good. And it’s been growing a lot, there are very good research groups in this country. But not all scientists go and write books or do scientific communication.
And regarding the announced cuts in the national budget for researching and science, how do you assess the current scenario?
I don’t know. Doing research in Argentina has always been difficult. There have been some years when it was more difficult than others, for example during the 1990s. That was awful. I was a student then but I also started going to the lab in those years. Then I would say that later, up until 2011, the salaries for researchers were better and were kind of competitive comparing to the wages of researchers in other countries. The budget for science and for buying equipment has been always low here. What happens now is if the budget is approved as they have been saying, it’s a major cut and it will have some negative consequences for the research system. Of course I don’t agree with that, I want a growing scientific field where everyone is able to do what they are interested in doing.
CV Lives in: Buenos Aires Achievements: Pedro Bekinschtein is a
biologist. He holds a doctorate from the University of Buenos Aires
(UBA). He studied for three years at the Department of Experimental
Psychology of the University of Cambridge, in the UK. Books: His latest book 100% memoria was released last month. In 2015 he released 100% cerebro. Current
activities: Rsearcher for the CONICET and leads investigations at the
Instituto de Neurociencia Cognitiva y Traslacional.