“When we’re learning new information, and it has all kinds of interrelationships, how do we see those relationships?”
Department of Psychology, University of Pennsylvania
By: Michelle Johnson (September 26, 2019)
What did you want to be when you were young?
I have always wanted to be a scientist. When I was really little, I would bother my parents with existential questions about the universe. I first wanted to be a physicist. I wanted to know what the universe was made of. Then I took a psychology class my senior year of high school, got really excited about it, and realized that we don’t even understand how we perceive the universe, so maybe we should work on understanding who are we before we get to understanding the universe.
Did you ever consider another career path?
I am a musician, and I did consider a career in music. But I have found great ways to play music outside of a professional career. In college I played in a jazz band, in grad school I had a little chamber ensemble, and during my postdoc I played in a klezmer group. I like all kinds of different music and haven’t figured out yet what I will play here in Philly. Some of the students in my lab are starting a band called “replay” (a process we study) and they are looking for a drummer. (I don’t play drums!)
What question excites you the most right now?
[Our lab has] two main areas of focus. One is trying to understand the different ways that we learn and make inferences quickly. When we’re learning new information, and it has all kinds of interrelationships, how do we see those relationships? How do we use [those relationships] to generalize to new information that we see? You’re in class, and you notice that something the teacher said at the end of class relates to something you learned at the beginning, and that allows you to draw a new conclusion that you couldn’t before. We don’t really understand how the brain sees these relationships, and we’re trying to test between different possible mechanisms.
We’re also interested in the consolidation of new information: how encoded memories stabilize and transform over time. We think that sleep might be a really big piece of the puzzle. Something about sleep helps us take our initial memory traces and transform them into a more stable long-term format. We have a sleep lab here, and we’re running experiments to understand what kind of information is coming online while you’re asleep and how that influences the way that you understand the world.
Has studying sleep changed the way you personally interact with it?
I have always been a good sleeper and I really value sleep. I don’t think that’s changed having studied sleep, although I do go around telling people, “We know sleep is important, you should sleep!”
I don’t currently study dreams, though perhaps the lab will eventually. They’re very tricky to study, but they have to be part of this story of memory processing. Things come into your consciousness from your recent experiences during the night; it’s a window into what the brain is up to. I think this is fascinating, so I keep a dream journal, and I try to keep track of where the information comes from that I’m seeing in my dreams. Are they things that just happened that day or did something come up that I haven’t thought about in years? I think these kinds of observations could potentially help us think through what the function of dreams could be.
What has surprised you most about working in this field?
I guess the longer you’re in this business, the more you realize how complicated our knowledge of the brain is. When you see the process of uncovering knowledge from the inside, it changes the way you think about what it means to have a finding or discovery. When you read a report of an fMRI paper that says that some area lights up when you’re thinking about something, what does that actually mean? An incredible amount of processing and analysis and interpretation goes into that. But it’s not magic. I think we could do more to better communicate our process of understanding brain function – perhaps especially in this case of noninvasive human neuroimaging.