Where do memories live in the brain? If you’ve ever taken a neuroscience class, you probably learned that they’re stored in our synapses, in the connections between our neurons. The basic idea is that, whenever we have an experience, the neurons involved fire together in time, and the synaptic connections between them get stronger. In this way, our memories for those experiences become minutely etched into our brains. This is what might be called the synaptic view of memory—it’s the story you’ll find in textbooks, and it’s often treated as settled fact. But some reject this account entirely. The real storehouses of memory, they argue, lie elsewhere.
My guest today is Dr. Sam Gershman. Sam is Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, and the director of the Computational Cognitive Neuroscience Lab there. In a recent paper, he marshals a wide-ranging critique of the synaptic view. He makes a compelling case that synapses can’t be the whole story—that we also have to look inside the neurons themselves.
Here, Sam and I first discuss the synaptic view and the evidence that seems to support it. We then talk about some of the problems with this classic picture. We consider, for example, cases where memories survive the radical destruction of synapses; and, more provocatively, cases where memories are formed in single-celled organisms that lack synapses altogether. We talk about the dissenting view, long lurking in the margins, that intracellular molecules like RNA could be the real storage sites of memory. Finally, we talk about Sam’s new account—a synthesis that posits a role for both synapses and molecules. Along the way we touch on planaria and paramecia; spike-timing dependent plasticity; the patient H.M.; metamorphosis, hibernation, and memory transfer; the pioneering work of Beatrice Gelber; unfairly maligned ideas; and much, much more.
Before we get to it, one important announcement: Applications are now open for the 2024 Diverse Intelligences Summer Institute (or DISI)! The event will be held in beautiful, seaside St Andrews, Scotland, from June 30 to July 20. If you like this show—if you like the conversations we have and the questions we ask—it’s a safe bet that you’d like DISI. You can find more info at disi.org—that’s disi.org. Review of applications will begin on Mar 1, so don’t delay.
Alright friends, on to my conversation about the biological basis of memory with Dr. Sam Gershman. Enjoy!