Memory is at the core of human identity. It underlies the ability to identify those we love and to tell stories. Our memory also allows us to understand the present, foresee our future, and make good decisions. However, we know that memory is not simply a veridical record of physical reality. Many things happen to us, and of those we remember some in detail, some vaguely, some incorrectly, and some not at all.

Research in the Adcock laboratory focuses on the neural systems that allow what we desire to influence what we remember, for better and for worse. We use functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (FMRI) activation (increases in image brightness that reflect changes in the oxygen levels in the brain) to measure how changes in brain activity relate to both motivation and memory. By looking at activation of neural “pleasure” circuits before and during memory formation, we have shown that even before you have an experience (e.g., seeing a picture), there are neural markers that predict whether or not you are going to remember it. The ability afforded by FMRI to look at an individual person’s brain as it changes, moment-to-moment, allows us to return to decades-old but still unresolved questions about how motivation influences learning new information. We can now integrate these data with other psychological and biological data we collect prior to and during memory formation to identify the key antecedents of lasting memories.
your midbrain
your midbrain waiting for a reward
Our research program represents an approach guided by and aimed at understanding neurobiology, as well as psychology. This integrated approach may help us understand how our brains ensure that we remember what is important and useful, and help us capitalize on that understanding for human advancement.