A recent study funded by the National Institutes of Health has presented an intriguing connection between memories and the decisions and actions we make and take in the present. The researchers used lab rats to study the effect of those memories on the rats’ ability to run a maze. Doctors Loren Frank and Shantanu Jadhav trained the rats to run a maze that required them to remember which path they chose previously, and alternate those paths each time they went through the maze. By shutting down specific brain activity in a rat’s hippocampus, the scientists blocked off its working memory, leaving the rat unable to remember the path it had recently chosen, and the reason for choosing one path over another (the reward at the end).
The mental activity involved in retrieving and reviewing the information in working memory happens incredibly quickly, but is apparently very important in influencing the decision that is made. The researchers proposed the idea that humans use the same techniques, unconsciously drawing on our memories of the outcomes of past decisions to guide the choices we make in the present.
Although this study focused on the unconscious activity of the brain, there’s something to be said for conscious recollection of memories as well, and using those memories to guide our future actions. There’s a famous quote by philosopher George Santayana in his 1909 book The Life of Reason that states: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” We learn through acquiring memories that shape the decisions we make every day. A common English proverb restates this concept as “the burnt child fears the fire.” Without the memory of being burned, the attractive glow of the flames might lead a child to burn themselves over and over again.
Obviously, a trained and healthy memory will benefit you as you move towards your goals in life, helping you make the best decisions and take the right paths to future success.