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They are also sometimes thought of as a neuronal network or fragment of memory, sometimes using a hologram analogy to describe its action in light of results showing that memory appears to be non-localized in the brain. The existence of engrams is posited by some scientific theories to explain the persistence of memory and how memories are stored in the brain. The existence of neurologically defined engrams is not significantly disputed, though its exact mechanism and location has been a persistent focus of research for many decades.
The term engram was coined by Richard Semon and explored by Anton Pavlov. Karl S. Lashley an American behaviorist well-remembered for his influential contributions to the study of learning and memory tried to locate the engram. His failure to find a single biological locus of memory (or "engram", as he called it) suggested to him that memories were not localized to one part of the brain, but were widely distributed throughout the cortex.
Lashley argued for distributed representations as a result of his failure to find anything like a localized engram in years of lesion experiments (src: Early work, Connectionism).
Thompson and his colleagues used classical conditioning of the eyelid response in rabbits in their search for an engram. They puffed air upon the cornea of the eye and paired it with a tone. This airpuff normally causes an automatic blinking response. After a number of trials they conditioned the rabbits to blink when they heard the tone even though the airpuff was no longer administered. During the experiment, they monitored several brain cells to try to locate the engram.
One brain region that they monitored that they thought was a possible part of the memory engram was the lateral interpositus nucleus (LIP), when chemically deactivated, it resulted in the rabbits, who were previously conditioned to blink when hearing the tone, to act as if the conditioning never took place; however, when they re-activated the LIP, they responded to the tone again with an eyeblink. This gives evidence that the LIP is a key element of the engram for this behavioral response. (James W. Kalat, Biological Psychology p.391-393)
It is important to stress that this approach targeting the cerebellum, though relatively successful, only examines basic, automatic responses. Almost all animals have these (especially as defense mechanisms) and it is fairly difficult to resist them. Imagine trying to avoid blinking when someone shoots something at your eye. Ideally, research by Thompson and others could eventually lead to isolation of more complicated engrams that control more abstract, declarative memories, like how one remembers one's name or the capital of France.
The problem here is that considerable studies have shown declarative memories tend to move about the brain between the limbic system (deep within the brain) and the outer cortical areas. This contrasts with the more "primitive" set-up of the cerebellum, which controls the blinking response and receives direct input of auditory information. Thus, it does not need to reach out to other brain structures for assistance in forming simpler memories of association.
The engram in other ContextsEdit
The term engram has been used in contexts beyond the scope of neuropsychology, including
- NLP (Derks and Hollander 1998;Derks and Goldblatt 1985;Drenth 2003)
- Artificial Intelligence
- Science Fiction
- Derks and Hollander (1998) Systemic Voodoo ISBN 1907388896
- Derks, L. & Goldblatt, R.,(1985) The Feedforward Conception of Consciousness: A Bridge between Therapeutic Practice and Experimental Psychology The William James Foundation, Amsterdam.
- Drenth, J.D. (2003) Growing anti-intellectualism in Europe; a menace to science Studia Psychologica, 2003, 45, 5-13
- Sinclair. J., Bray, S., (1992) An ABC of NLP Publisher: Self-published (ASPEN) ISBN 0951366017
- Forgotten Ideas, Neglected Pioneers: Richard Semon and the Story of Memory, Daniel Schacter, 2001de:Engramm
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