Many20 Minds20 Podcast20 20 Of20molecules20and20memories
Feb 26, 2024

Of Molecules & Memories with Sam Gershman (podcast)

Where do memories live in the brain? The classic view is that memories are encoded in synapses. In contrast, some findings suggest they could also be stored in intracellular molecules like RNA.

By Templeton Staff

Where do memories "live" in the brain? The classic view is that memories are encoded in synapses.

In contrast, findings from the "forgotten fringes" of neuroscience suggest that the synaptic story has gaps. Dr. Sam Gershman, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, and the director of the Computational Cognitive Neuroscience Lab there, joins this episode of Many Minds podcast for a conversation about the biological basis of memory. 

Many Minds podcast host, cognitive scientist, and writer Kensy Cooperrider introduces the episode:

"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. 

In a recent paper, Dr. Sam Gershman 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."

Be sure to check out the show notes for links with detailed information.

Play the episode with the above player.

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Image: Santiago Ramón y Cajal, 'Calyces of Held in the nucleus of the trapezoid body,' 1934 (detail); Courtesy of Cajal Institute (CSIC), Madrid.

Templeton World Charity Foundation's Diverse Intelligences is a multiyear, global effort to understand a world alive with brilliance in many forms. Its mission is to promote open-minded, forward-looking inquiry in animal, human, and machine intelligences. We collaborate with leading experts and emerging scholars from around the globe, developing high-caliber projects that advance our comprehension of the constellation of intelligences.

Many Minds is a project of the Diverse Intelligences Summer Institute (DISI), made possible through a grant from TWCF to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). The Many Minds podcast is hosted and produced by Kensy Cooperrider, with help from Assistant Producer Urte Laukaityte. Creative support is provided by DISI Directors Erica Cartmill and Jacob Foster. Artwork featured as the podcast badge is by Ben Oldroyd.