Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Watching the Detective

Credit: dynamosquito (CC BY-SA 2.0)

By Tim Hannan

Studies of neural activity in viewers of Sherlock reveal how we connect story elements.

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.

Over the past century, research in cognitive neuroscience has enabled the development of a consistent and testable theory of how we perceive and remember individual pictures and words. Yet one question has continued to trouble researchers: how does the brain enable us to understand and recall a series of discrete words and pictures as a continuous story? A team of American researchers believes it may have solved this problem, with the assistance of Sherlock Holmes.

The paradigm employed in most research into human perception and memory has required participants to perceive and memorise lists of words or photos. Yet human experience involves much more than the perception and recall of discrete elements: we experience, perceive and remember our lives as a continuous, meaningfully connected stream of events. Somehow the brain is able to process these elements into a coherent and memorable whole.

The process we use to achieve this task is loosely termed “chunking”. Although this is a long-held and generally accepted theory, the neural mechanisms for it have remained little known. Recently, researchers have begun to employ functional imaging techniques such as fMRI to observe how the brain reacts during perception and recall of experiences, especially those requiring the processing of related events.

In a series of studies, a team of researchers from...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.