How the brain builds panoramic memory

When asked to visualize your childhood home, you can probably picture not only the house you lived in, but also the buildings next door and across the street. MIT neuroscientists at MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research and a junior fellow of the Harvard Society of Fellows have now identified two brain regions that are involved in creating these panoramic memories.

These brain regions help us to merge fleeting views of our surroundings into a seamless, 360-degree panorama, the researchers say.

As we look at a scene, visual information flows from our retinas into the brain, which has regions that are responsible for processing different elements of what we see, such as faces or objects. The MIT team suspected that areas involved in processing scenes — the occipital place area (OPA), the retrosplenial complex (RSC), and parahippocampal place area (PPA) — might also be involved in generating panoramic memories of a place such as a street corner.

If this were true, when you saw two images of houses that you knew were across the street from each other, they would evoke similar patterns of activity in these specialized brain regions. Two houses from different streets would not induce similar patterns.

“Our hypothesis was ,” Robertson says.

The researchers explored the hypothesis that as we begin to build memory of the environment around us, there would be certain regions of the brain where the representation of a single image would start to overlap with representations of other views from the same scene. They used immersive virtual reality headsets, which allowed them to show people many different panoramic scenes.

Brain scans revealed that when participants saw two images that they knew were linked, the response patterns in the RSC and OPA regions were similar. However, this was not the case for image pairs that the participants had not seen as linked. This suggests that the RSC and OPA, but not the PPA, are involved in building panoramic memories of our surroundings, the researchers say.

In another experiment, the researchers tested whether one image could “prime” the brain to recall an image from the same panoramic scene. To do this, they showed participants a scene and asked them whether it had been on their left or right when they first saw it. Before that, they showed them either another image from the same street corner or an unrelated image. Participants performed much better when primed with the related image.