Untangling the Mystery of Memory

Brenda Milner in 2011 | Photo by  Eva Blue

Brenda Milner in 2011 | Photo by Eva Blue

How has our understanding of the mysterious tissue between our ears changed in the past 50 years? In her Totally Cerebralepisodes on Transistorneuroscientist Wendy Suzuki introduces us to scientists who have uncovered some of the deepest secrets about how our brains make us who we are.

Wendy begins by talking with groundbreaking experimental psychologist Brenda Milner, who in the 1950s, completely changed our understanding of the parts of the brain important for forming new long-term memories. Through her observation and careful study of patients with profound amnesia, Brenda wrote a paper in 1957 that broke with the accepted theories about memory, and blew open the entire field of neuroscience.

The Man Without a Memory

Imagine that every time you met someone new, the moment they left the room you forgot you had ever spoken to them, and when they returned it was as if you had never seen them before. Imagine remembering your childhood, your parents, the history you learned in school, but never being able to form a new long term memory after the age of 27.

Welcome to the life of the famous amnesic patient “HM”, who had experimental surgery to relieve his terrible epilepsy, and woke up with a profound memory impairment. Wendy speaks with neuroscientist Suzanne Corkin, who studied HM for almost half a century and considered him a friend, even though he could never remember how he knew her. Suzanne gives us a glimpse of what daily life was like for HM, who we know now as Henry Moliason, and his tremendous contribution to our understanding of how our memories work.

Amnesia and Pop Culture

Many depictions of amnesia in TV, movies, and cartoons are just plain wrong — some laughably so.

Host Dr.Wendy Suzuki talks withProf. Neal Cohen, a Neuroscientist from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. For 20 years, Neal has used bad examples of amnesia that abound in pop culture as well as the rare accurate depictions as a powerful tool in his wildly popular undergraduate course about amnesia in pop culture. Neal entertains and educates his students with examples from TV shows and films as diverse as Futurama, Memento, and50 First Dates, and we’ll hear some of those clips.

What's that Smell?

Scents and tastes are powerfully evocative — one whiff of perfume or cooking aromas can transport you back to a particular moment, a particular place, a particular person. Because the things we smell reach two brain structures called the hippocampus and amygdala in just one synapse, scents can almost immediately stimulate the key brain areas for memory, emotion, and location.

In this episode of Totally Cerebral, Dr. Wendy Suzuki speaks withneuroscientist Howard Eichenbaum, an expert on olfactory memory, and together with chemist Kent Kirshenbaum, sits down to a meal with Chef Anita Lo to hear how she plays with our senses and our memories in her delicious creations.

This episode was hosted by Wendy Suzuki and produced by Julie Burstein, with editing and sound design by Derek John. Wendy Suzuki’s book Healthy Brain, Happy Life, goes on sale May 19, 2015.

Totally Cerebral: Exercise and Your Brain

A story about movement, memory, and mentors.  Dr. Wendy Suzuki introduces us to Dr. Marian Diamond, whose lively classes at Berkeley sparked Wendy's passion for neuroscience.  Wendy shares how her work with Dr. Diamond as an undergraduate, and her subsequent work as a professor at NYU, led her to study how exercise profoundly affects our brains.