New Worlds: ‘Aha’ moments can last forever

Why do the things we learn through sudden insight stick? “Much memory research involves rote learning," Weizman research student says.

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July 3, 2011 03:40
4 minute read.
[illustrative photo]

Light bulb 311 (R). (photo credit: REUTERS/Ina Fassbender)

 
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When we suddenly get a “Eureka!” solution to a problem, we can practically feel a light bulb click on in our heads. But what happens after the “Aha!” moment? Why do the things we learn through sudden insight stick? “Much memory research involves rote learning,” says Kelly Ludmer, a research student in the group of Prof. Yadin Dudai of the Weizmann Institute for Science’s neurobiology department, “but in fact, we regularly absorb large blocks of information in the blink of an eye, and remember things quite well after single exposures.

To investigate how inspiration we gain from insight gets embedded in our long-term memory, Ludmer, Dudai and Prof. Nava Rubin of New York University designed a test with “camouflage images” – photographs that had been systematically degraded until they resembled inkblots. When volunteers first viewed the images, they had difficulty identifying them. But after the camouflage was switched with the original, undoctored picture for a second, the subjects experienced an ‘Aha!’ moment – the image now popped out clearly, even in the degraded image.

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Their perceptions, says Ludmer, underwent a sudden change – just as a flash of insight can instantly change our world view. They repeated the exercise with dozens of different images and, in a second session later, were given only the camouflaged images to identify, together with some they hadn’t seen before.

The team found that some of the memories disappeared over time, but the ones that lasted for the first week were likely to remain. All in all, about half of the “insights” were consolidated in their memories.

To reveal what occurs in the brain at the moment of insight, the initial viewing session was conducted in a functional MRI (fMRI) scanner. When the scientists looked at the fMRI results, they were surprised to find that among the areas that lit up – those known to be involved in object recognition, for instance – was the amygdala, known as the brain’s center of emotion. Though it has recently been found to play a role in the consolidation of certain memories, studies have implied that it does so by attaching special weight to emotion-laden events. But the images used in the experiment – such as hot-air balloons, dogs and people looking through binoculars – were hardly the sort to elicit an emotional response. Not only was the amygdala lighting up in the fMRI; the team found that its activity was actually predictive of a subject’s ability to identify the degraded image long after the moment of induced insight.

“Our results demonstrate, for the first time, that the amygdala is important for creating long-term memories – not only when the information learned is explicitly emotional, but also when there is a sudden reorganization of information, for example, involving a sudden shift in perception,” says Ludmer. “It might somehow evaluate an event, ‘deciding’ whether it is significant and therefore worthy of preservation.” The researchers hope their findings might point to ways of preventing or treating memory loss.

HU, U. OF KENTUCKY RESEARCHERS WIN JOINT SCIENCE PRIZE Transformative science is defined as research “driven by ideas with the potential to radically change our understanding of an important scientific concept, or lead to the creation of a new paradigm or field of science.”



Such research is also characterized by its challenge to current understanding, or by leading to new ways of doing things. Research teams at the University of Kentucky and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem have won a prestigious $300,000 award from the US-Israel Binational Science Foundation (BSF) for a new program devoted to transformative science.

Collaborative research by Prof. Ruth Sperling of HU’s Alexander Silberman Institute of Life Sciences and Prof.

Stefan Stamm at the American university on the regulation of alternative splicing by small non-coding RNAs was one of two accepted by the BSF in the first round of the award. The research aims to investigate how organisms regulate the readout of their genomic information. It isn’t known how the information stored in DNA is interpreted to govern organism formation.

The team will investigate the role of a new class of short forms of ribonucleic acid (RNA) molecules made directly from DNA, the molecule that stores the genomic information. They will investigate the role of these molecules, that are expressed only in the nucleus of cells, in controlling and coordinating the expression of genetic information in a meaningful way.

The group will concentrate on a brain receptor that controls appetite and food uptake. The assumption is that small RNA molecules are master controllers that determine which genes are used. This new concept could change the current thinking that gene expression is mainly dictated by regulatory proteins, and open the way to study the role of small non-coding RNAs in nuclear gene regulation, the researchers said. This work could help explain how information in the genome is used to build an organism, and will be useful to design therapies against diseases, for example to design drugs that suppress appetite. Verification of this assumption would open a new chapter in molecular biology.

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