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Mariam Aly runs the Aly lab at Columbia University, where she studies the interaction of memory, attention, and perception in brain regions like the hippocampus. The short story is that memory affects our perceptions, attention affects our memories, memories affect our attention, and these effects have signatures in neural activity measurements in our hippocampus and other brain areas. We discuss her experiments testing the nature of those interactions. We also discuss a particularly difficult stretch in Mariam’s graduate school years, and how she now prioritizes her mental health.
- Aly Lab.
- Twitter: @mariam_s_aly.
- Related papers
- Attention promotes episodic encoding by stabilizing hippocampal representations.
- The medial temporal lobe is critical for spatial relational perception.
- Cholinergic modulation of hippocampally mediated attention and perception.
- Preparation for upcoming attentional states in the hippocampus and medial prefrontal cortex.
- How hippocampal memory shapes, and is shaped by, attention.
- Attentional fluctuations and the temporal organization of memory.
0:00 – Intro
3:50 – Mariam’s background
9:32 – Hippocampus history and current science
12:34 – hippocampus and perception
13:42 – Relational information
18:30 – How much memory is explicit?
22:32 – How attention affects hippocampus
32:40 – fMRI levels vs. stability
39:04 – How is hippocampus necessary for attention
57:00 – How much does attention affect memory?
1:02:24 – How memory affects attention
1:06:50 – Attention and memory relation big picture
1:07:42 – Current state of memory and attention
1:12:12 – Modularity
1:17:52 – Practical advice to improve attention/memory
1:21:22 – Mariam’s challenges
Mariam 00:00:03 I think the general way we’re viewing it is that there’s no, uh, clear dividing line between attentional systems and memory systems, but they have to be fundamentally interactive and that attention can shape what your memory systems are doing and, and how they’re doing that. And these memory systems can also then affect what you’re paying attention to and affect different attentional systems. So I think that the, the cognitive labels of memory and attention are very useful because, um, they are convenient shorthands that we all intuitively understand and communicate, and also allow us to communicate our science to the public.
Speaker 3 00:00:47 This is brain inspired.
Paul 00:00:49 Hey everyone. I am Paul, uh, my guest today, Miriam Alley runs the Alley Lab at Columbia University. So in the last few episodes of brain inspired, we’ve focused a lot on the, uh, interactive nature of our brains and our cognition. So, for example, recently on Collins, um, talked about how working memory interacts with our reinforcement learning systems, uh, during learning and with Michael Anderson and Luis Paso. Uh, we’ve discussed how the traditional way of studying brains in terms of individual areas and studying cognitive functions as if they were individual modules functioning independently. Um, that’s likely not the best way to study brains and minds. And instead, we should honor the complexity and interactions and integrations of brain areas and cognitive functions. Today’s episode continues, uh, in that vein, Miriam and her lab, uh, focus on the interactions between memory, attention, and perception. And although much of her work and much of our discussion today focuses on one brain area, the hippocampus, she shares the view that it’s, uh, wrong to think of a single brain area as carrying out a single cognitive function, which we also discuss.
Paul 00:02:06 The short story is that memory affects our perceptions, attention affects our memories and memories, uh, affect our attention. And these effects have signatures in neural activity, measurements in places like the hippocampus, uh, and other areas. And Miriam details these stories more during the episode. And toward the end of the episode, we go pretty deep into Miriam’s personal story and career, uh, trajectory. She had a pretty challenging stretch in graduate school regarding anxiety and overworking, um, that I think many of you may be able to relate to. She was very open about her experiences and hopefully her story will help, uh, any of you who might be struggling with similar challenges. So I appreciate, uh, Miriam being so open with that. Show notes are at brand inspired.co/podcast/ 156, where you can also learn how to support the show through Patreon. And I would love to have you join our brain inspired community. All right, here’s Miriam. Miriam, I, I read on your sort of backstory that you linked to from your website that there was a time where you didn’t know what psychology, uh, was. And this, this rang true to me because I, there was a time I didn’t know what neuroscience was, and it’s hard to remember, uh, that that time period. Do you, do you know what psychology is now?
Mariam 00:03:33 I think I do. I’m pretty sure, although obviously there’s a lot of blurry lines between other fields like neuroscience and cognitive science. Um, but I’m pretty confident that now that I teach psychology, I know a little bit more about what it’s
Paul 00:03:45 <laugh>. Good, good. Well, you know, reading your work, um, one of the reasons why I was interested in having you on is because recently I’ve had multiple people on talking about the interaction of cognitive functions and how they affect each other and, um, how the brain is, you know, highly integrative, uh, complex system and how that kind of changes the views on, you know, how we think about, um, cognition and brain function and, and psychological constructs and stuff. And I’m just curious, because we’re gonna get into, uh, you know, talking about many of the, much of the work that you have done, but do you feel like you are closer to <laugh> knowing what you sort of originally wanted to know about how the mind works and how brains work? Because in my career, I felt the more I knew, and this is a, a common feeling, the more I knew the, the less, the more I realized how much I don’t know. Uh, but, but do you feel like you’ve take, you know, you’ve taken, uh, steps closer to knowing what you want to know?
Mariam 00:04:49 I think like you, the more I know, the more I realize I don’t know and may never know that I’ve become comfortable with the amount that we have yet to figure out, and that we may not figure out, at least in my lifetime. So, at least at the level of going from neurons to awareness or subjective reliving of our memories, I don’t know if we’ll get there in my lifetime, but we do have a better appreciation, or I’ve come to appreciate that we have a better understanding of links between neural networks and components of the mind. Um, and the, the blurriness between different modules of the brain that used to be considered perception or memory. For example, a lot of my work touches on how a given brain region might support multiple aspects of cognition. So in that sense, I think at a high level, I’ve come to understand a lot more what brain regions and brain networks might be doing. But in terms of the, the specific question of, you know, how do neurons and lia and cells give rise to the mind? I don’t, I dunno if we’ll get there in my lifetime at least.
Paul 00:05:55 Wow. You, you threw Lia out there, Lia are becoming more, more, more and more important
Mariam 00:06:00 <laugh>. Yeah. Yeah. I’ve, you know, I’m, I’m not in that particular area of work, but I I’m very curious about it. So I, I’ve seen and keep an eye out on studies showing that Lia might be a lot more important than, uh, traditional neuroscience textbooks would have you believe
Paul 00:06:17 Ha has the target of your interest changed over time as well? Like with, you know, as you do experiments and learn more about what you know and what you don’t know, ha have your questions that that interest you have. They, how have they changed over time?
Mariam 00:06:31 It’s interesting because when I first thought I became aware of psychology without knowing the word for it, um, I was a child and I was looking at these, um, eyewitness science books that had visual illusions in them. And I was absolutely captivated by, um, the Ames room, which I can describe to you if you’re interested. But, um, I was just amazed that not only was there this very powerful illusion, but that even if I knew how it worked, I couldn’t convince myself to see it any other way. Hmm. So in that sense, some of my interests started with perception. And then when I went to college, I started to become more and more interested in memory. And so I went into my PhD convinced that I would study memory only to find myself going back to perception, and then finally kind of merging my memory and perception interests. So in that sense, my interests have both changed and remained the same. Um, I don’t always do what I intend to do in a particular part of my career, um, but I find that my interests have become, you know, fairly broad, but yet, um, somewhat consistent in terms of the way that the different parts of cognition are tied together.
Paul 00:07:37 Well, when did attention, uh, come into the fore?
Mariam 00:07:41 Yeah, so that’s a great question. So I, I had, um, went to my PhD to try to study memory accidentally found myself in perception, and I could tell you a little bit about how that happened. Um, and my PhD research ended up focusing on how the brains so-called memory systems can play a critical role in our perceptual experience. And so after finishing that work, a natural next step for me was to understand the links between, uh, the brain’s memory systems and attention, both because attention affects what we perceive and attention affects what we remember. Um, and it was a relatively underexplored part of the field at that time. And so I went to my postdoc to try to find how attention can shape the brain’s memory networks and how that can affect what we encode.
Paul 00:08:26 Well, that’s a lot of what we’re gonna talk about, but can I back up and ask you what is the Ames room? And, uh, why, I don’t even, I don’t think I’ve heard of the Ames room.
Mariam 00:08:35 So the Ames room is this illusion where, um, you as a perceiver are looking at what seems to be a regular shaped rectangular room, except at one end there is, um, a person who appears to be giant and at the other end is a person who appears to be miniature. Um, and so naturally your brain wonders how can one person, you know, be five, six times the size of another. And it’s because the room is actually not rectangular. It’s set up to be a trapezoid. So that one person is physically a lot closer to you than the other person, and the person who’s closer to you appears to be larger. Hmm. But because of the way you’re seeing the room, your brain is convinced that it’s rectangular and not a trapezoid, and it’s extremely difficult for you to overcome the illusion, even if you know that it’s a trapezoid.
Paul 00:09:23 Yeah. Okay. So I have seen that, um, but I didn’t know it was called the Ames room, so thanks for educating me. Uh, sure. Um, okay. So you mentioned that you got interested in memory and a lot of what you study is how, uh, specifically hippocampal what, what you call hippocampal memory, um, is affected by attention and affects attention and perception. And the, maybe we could just start off by talking about the hippocampus because, um, you, you know, you, you already mentioned earlier that you, uh, have come to appreciate more, uh, how different brain areas can be involved in multiple cognitive functions. And of course, I don’t know about you, but, uh, and I don’t know how old it is these days, but when the word hippocampus comes up in textbooks, or it used to, you learn about, and hippocampus is all about memory. Uh, and it was that, that way for a long time.
Paul 00:10:17 And, and more recently, uh, of course with the, you know, discovery of play cells and all the navigational type signals that are found in hippocampus now, it’s all cognitive maps. Now the hippocampus is all cognitive maps. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, you know, and, and or, uh, with the Jennifer Aniston cells, it’s all abstract, conceptual, um, features in the hippocampus. So <laugh>, you know, how have your own views on the hippocampus, uh, changed over time, you know, with, with your own research, but also just the, the way that research has historically progressed and people have made different claims about the role of the hippocampus?
Mariam 00:10:55 Sure. Yeah. So traditionally, like you said, the hippocampus is, is a memory system. And, um, you know, for good reason when, when patients have damage to the hippocampus, one of the most notable symptoms and one of the most, um, notable complaints by them is the fact that they now have problems with their memory. So both encoding and retrieving memories. So I don’t want to, um, you know, minimize that the hippocampus does play a really crucial role in memory, particularly cause memory loss is the most salient feature of hippocampal damage. Um, and that’s why h was so notable is, you know, you just have this complete lack of inability to encode new memories after the hippocampus is gone. And so rightfully, people spend, um, many decades in the field to try to understand how it encodes accused memories. But I think, you know, that’s a standard textbook view.
Mariam 00:11:46 It’s still in the textbooks today. You know, you open a textbook published in 2022 or 2023, and that’s the story that you’ll find. But I think in the last, you know, uh, 20 years or so, there’s been increasing appreciation of the role of the hippocampus in, in-memory domains. Some of those are because memory is useful in many settings. So of course many of us will study memory because we think it’s an inherently very interesting and a part of who we are. But memory is also used in lots of settings in which you might not think you’re using memory. So you use memory when you’re making decisions or trying to anticipate what someone might say next, or when you’re trying to solve a problem or when you’re, um, trying to anticipate where you should direct your attention when you’re driving. So because memory is so ubiquitous in how it contributes to our behavior, then the hippocampus will play a role in lots of those settings as well.
Mariam 00:12:42 But I think what’s more interesting to me is situations in which memory is not needed and not obviously used, but the hippocampus still seems to play a role. And one of those that really, um, got my attention in my PhD was perception. Hmm. So there was a number of studies done in the late nineties and early two thousands in both non-human primates and in humans showing that hippocampal damage can impair perception of scenes when they’re all on the screen in front of you. So there’s no demand to encode anything into long-term memory. There’s no demand to retrieve everything is there in front of you. And yet, hippocampal lesion patients seem to have great difficulties in perceiving spatial relations. And so one of my main interests now is to trying to understand what are the core features of the hippocampus that allow it to contribute critically to memory, but also to make important contributions to these other domains.
Paul 00:13:40 Since, since you said spatial relations, um, one of the things you often write about is, uh, the relational aspects of, let’s say, information processing and the hippocampus. What does that mean, and and why do you think that that’s one of the core, um, functions, let’s say, of the hippocampus is relational processing?
Mariam 00:14:03 Yeah. I’ve come to think that the, one of the very important aspects of the hippocampus is this ability to represent and integrate relationships between different features in the environment. So to give an example, within the spatial rem, you might have, uh, a room like your living room and your living room contains multiple pieces of furniture. You have a couch, you have tables, you have a television. And we know that different parts of the visual stream might be specialized for processing some of those components. So there might be some parts of the visual system that are specialized for processing objects, for example, based on work from memory and perception. We think the hippocampus is particularly critical for processing the relationships between those features. So not just knowing that there’s a couch and a table, but knowing that the, the table is to the left of the couch, and that if those relations were swapped, then the room has become different in some important way, or that your living room and my living room could have the same exact components. But if they’re arranged differently, that means they are signaling a different room or a different environment.
Paul 00:15:11 And so I can relate that very easily to, you know, like navigation, right? Because navigation is all about knowing where something is in relation to where another thing is. Um, how do I relate that to episodic memory, as you know? Or is it, you know, necessarily relational episodic memory that the hippocampus is dealing with, and, you know, concepts, right? Abstractions, uh, there, there must be an kind of an, uh, uh, easy, uh, step from relations to abstractions since relations necessarily deal with kind of conjunctive features of things.
Mariam 00:15:47 Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Yeah, I think remembering relations is necessarily a critical part of episodic memory, because it’s not enough to remember that you had a particular conversation. You have to remember who you had the conversation with. Hmm. Or was it you that said this particular sentence or your friend, um, that the conversation happened yesterday or last month, uh, was it in your office or in their office? So you’re remembering not just details, but also the relationship between those details. And if those details were arranged in a different way, then it’s a different memory. So I might have a conversation with a graduate student in my lab Tuesday morning, and I have to separate that from a similar conversation I have with them Friday afternoon. So I have to remember those relations for it to be an episodic memory. Um, and it’s not that the hippocampus is the only region that stores relations. So like you said, relations are a key aspect of knowing what concepts are, or having schema for typical structures that exist regularly in the world. So knowing what typically happens when you go to a restaurant is a relational structure or is schema, and there are other parts of the brain that can store that type of relational information.
Paul 00:17:01 But when I think of like a concept or an abstraction, I think of somehow losing the relation and have the abstraction is a higher order concept, right? Of something that was built out of relations. So how do I marry those two ideas?
Mariam 00:17:19 Sure. Yeah. So you can think of concepts being acquired when you have multiple experiences with a particular entity. And over time you can abstract the core features of that thing and lose the incidental features that are not important for defining what that concept is. Um, it doesn’t mean that you can’t still have some of those details somewhere. So in, in the case, for example, the, the Jennifer Aniston cell, it could be that the hippocampus is representing the unique concept of Jennifer Aniston. But of course, every time you see Jennifer Aniston, you might be bringing to mind memories of movies that you’ve seen her in, or TV shows that you’ve seen her in.
Paul 00:17:59 Hmm. Oh, I thought you were gonna gimme a specific Jennifer Aniston memory there.
Mariam 00:18:03 <laugh>. Oh, I, I don’t have many specific Jennifer Aniston memories, actually. Don’t
Paul 00:18:07 Either, but I’m sure some seller might hippocampus fires when when I see her on screen or something,
Mariam 00:18:12 Probably <laugh>.
Paul 00:18:14 So earlier you said, um, you know, in your work on the effect of, uh, memory and perception in their, uh, interactions that even when memory is not demanded, right, um, damage to the hippocampus affects how we perceive the world. When you’re, when you’re doing something that doesn’t require memory, uh, maybe the hippocampus just shuts off, right? No, that never happens right there. Your brain’s constantly active. Uh, sometimes more, sometimes less, and sometimes in different patterns as we’ll discuss. But you know, how much of, you know, when you think of memory, you always, well, you often think except for implicit memory, you think of explicit memory. Conscious memory, right? And how much, um, you know, my memory of cats is affecting something that I’m doing with cats or something like that. But everything’s always going on under the hood as well. And do you have a sense of how much that sort of, uh, sub subjective, um, that memory activity might be interacting with ongoing task related activity that we’re trying to bring into, uh, that we’re focusing on, that we’re subject subjectively aware of? Like, how much of that is going on under the hood at all times?
Mariam 00:19:32 Sure. It’s a great question. There’s also one that I struggle to know how to precisely answer, because by its nature, we’re not aware of it. So it’s very hard for us to estimate how, how much is happening. But of course, in in lab laboratory settings, you can try to see cases where people have implicit memories that affect their behavior even without their awareness. And my guess is it’s, it’s probably a great, a great deal. Um, like you said, although we’re very aware of our explicit memories and memories we know we have and can talk about, there’s a lot of ways that our behavior is guided by habits and, uh, learned statistical associations and, um, repetitions that we have from doing the same thing over and over. In the case of many of our routines where, you know, we take the same route to work, we walk the same way to our office every day.
Mariam 00:20:21 So some of that is, you know, um, non hippocampal implicit memories that might be mediated by other brain systems. But I think there’s also a lot of work in the last couple of decades showing that some of those implicit memories might also be hippocampal. Um, so for example, our, our eyes are drawn to regions of space that might have changed even if we don’t have explicit memory for them. So if you think about walking into your office, um, something is slightly different. You dunno what it is, your eyes might go to that location, even if you don’t explicitly notice that, you know, maybe a facilities person has come, come in and cleaned the office and moved some of your things around, for example. So I think a, a lot of our day-to-day experiences might involve, um, some measures of implicit memory, the way that our eyes move, um, the fact that we’re faster at responding to things that we have many associations or many experiences with. They’re not salient to us. But if you think about it, how, how fluidly you navigate around your house, for example, um, you’re not thinking about it, but you clearly know, um, where to go, the places to avoid so that you don’t run into furniture. And, and so on.
Paul 00:21:36 <laugh>, this is a total aside, but, uh, you, you conjure thoughts of my wife who doesn’t notice like large changes in the environment, uh, doesn’t seem to notice. And there’s a story, um, from one of her old roommates and friends, uh, where she would even like test my wife by putting like this big trash bag, you know, like full filled trash bag that needs to go out sort of in the walkway. And, and my wife would just kind of step over it and go on about her date. Oh, wow. <laugh> seemingly not noticing that. What does that means?
Mariam 00:22:08 Are you sure she’s not pranking you in some
Paul 00:22:11 Way? Uh, she could be, she could be, or she could have severe hippocampal damage. I, I’m not sure.
Mariam 00:22:16 Yeah, I don’t know. With, with such large salient objects, uh, I think the literature would suggest that even with hippocampal damage, you should be able to notice those. I
Paul 00:22:26 Think this is a motivational issue with taking out the trash. Perhaps I haven’t tested that one. It
Mariam 00:22:30 Could be. Yeah. Yeah, it could be.
Paul 00:22:32 All right. Let’s talk about some of the, some of the findings that, um, you are continue continuing to generate from your lab. Um, and I, I’m kind of particularly interested on the interaction between attention and, uh, memory. Um, and then there are some other things that I want to ask you about as well. But so traditionally as you write in your papers attention, um, attentional effects have not been found in the hippocampus, or there’s has been scant evidence for them in, for attentional effects in the hippocampus. Why is that?
Mariam 00:23:12 Sure. So we started looking at this question, um, maybe around 2013 or so. That’s when I started my postdoc. And I was really interested in how the way that we pay attention influences what our memory systems are representing and what we encode. And of course, there’s extensive appreciation of the fact that tension influences memory, and there’s also lots of findings showing that attention, modulates, hippocampal signals of memory, encoding and retrieval. What hadn’t been found at that point is how attention affects hippocampal representations when there isn’t really a demand to be encoding or retrieving from memory. So as you are going around in the world, you pay attention to some things and not others. And we’re interested in, even when you’re not trying to encode or retrieve any memory, how does your attentional state affect hip representations? And when I started the sign of work, it seemed like, um, paying attention to the left or right side of the screen, or paying attention to faces versus houses didn’t really seem to affect hippocampal activity at all.
Mariam 00:24:16 And that’s in stark contrast to how attention affects visual systems, where if you’re paying attention to a face versus a house, there is extremely robust modulation of signals in visual areas. And we figured that some of those null effects in the hippocampus might be because the hippocampus doesn’t really care about individual objects as much as it cares about relationships between objects. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So, um, that was one reason. The other reason we thought that there might have been null effects in those studies is because the way that attention affects visual systems might be different from the way that it affects the hippocampus in terms of the actual signature you’re looking for. So the most robust way to look for attention affects in the brain is to look at our areas more active when you’re paying attention to the features they prefer compared to when you’re not paying attention to those features.
Paul 00:25:11 And that’s cause attention is traditionally, well, one way to think of attention is sort of gain modulation of salient things, right. Increase, uh, the activity of your brain to salient features and decrease them to, to non salient features, for example.
Mariam 00:25:24 Exactly. So this gain modulation is one of the signatures of attention that has received a lot of investigation and is, is a really robust signature to find in the brain. Um, so of course it’s reasonable then to look for the same gain modulation in the hippocampus. Um, but we’d also noticed that there was some exciting work from ronette models that was coming out around that time, showing that attention affects not how active different cells are in the hippocampus, but how stable they are in their firing. So, um, play cells, which fire when an animal is in a particular location, in the environment, tend to be more stable in their firing, more precise in where they fire, when the animal’s paying attention to the spatial environment versus other aspects of the environment. So we thought that maybe prior studies has, prior studies had missed signatures of attention in the hippocampus because one, the studies they were using were maybe not optimally designed to talk hippocampal relational processing. And second, you might have to look not just at how active the hippocampus is, but also how stable its representations are.
Paul 00:26:36 So, okay, make the connection for me between stability and, okay. So the, let me back up. The, the, the old way of doing F M R I, which is currently still in use, is to look at some area and say, is that area, uh, does it have signatures of higher oxygen nation levels there? Higher bold signal? And that must mean it’s more active and you’re using that area more. And that’s still traditionally, like you said, when you look in, uh, visual cortex, for instance, when you’re performing something and you’re paying attention to the left side of the screen, your uh, right. Visual cortex will have a higher bold signal. Right? And then the inference there is that your right visual cortex is more active, is working harder. I don’t, well, I’ll back off on working harder because that’s something I wanna ask you about. Um, but Sure. But then, um, you know, multi, um, multi oxyl pattern analysis came along and started looking at different, uh, patterns of activity among all of the voxels. But we’re, and, and then you can compare like the, the patterns, um, of this wide array of voxels of areas in the brain and then, um, differentiate, um, cognitive functions, uh, based on those patterns. Uh, but what is st how does stability relate to those two aspects?
Mariam 00:27:50 Sure. Yeah. So stability is related to the, the second aspect that you talked about of looking at multi patterns. And so the idea behind stability is just how similar are those patterns across different instances? So imagine you’re doing a task where, uh, you’re viewing pictures of rooms, and half of the time I tell you to pay attention to one feature. So I tell you to pay attention to, um, the relative positions of the couch and the table. And the other half of the time I tell you, um, you know, pay attention to the windows. The idea with stability is that one year attentional state is the same, the activity patterns in the brain or in the hippocampus might be more similar. So we call them stable, because the idea there is that every time you’re in a particular state, um, the brain reinstates a particular activity pattern that is similar or stable across those different instances.
Paul 00:28:44 Well, I thought you were gonna describe the art gallery task that you employed.
Mariam 00:28:48 Yeah, I was subtly hinting You should
Paul 00:28:50 Suddenly hinting. Yeah. Let, let’s explicitly describe it, I suppose, because it’s, it’s not a far cry from what you just described <laugh>.
Mariam 00:28:56 Sure. Yeah. So one way that we’ve been looking at attention effects in the hip campus is by having people do a task that we’ve been calling the art gallery task. And the idea there is that you can present people with a relatively naturalistic stimulus. So in our case, it’s, uh, images of 3D rendered rooms, um, and we get them to pay attention to different features. So, um, half the time we call ’em to pay attention to these facial configuration of furniture. So we create these rooms that have really unique layouts, uh, unique angles in the walls, unique, um, spacing and sizing of the, the furniture. And half the time we tell people, pay attention to the spatial configuration of the room. So wh where are the walls? What are the angles? How’s the furniture arranged?
Paul 00:29:41 This is the relational part.
Mariam 00:29:43 Exactly. And particularly facial relationships. Right? Um, then the other aspect of the task is that we, we hang the painting in each room. Um, so we place it on one of the walls. And the idea there is that maybe you’re walking through an art gallery, um, and you sometimes are paying attention to the paintings, and sometimes you’re paying attention to other features. So half the time you’re paying attention to the spatial configuration, and half the time you’re paying attention to the art. Um, and people have to do different tasks. So in the room task, they’re looking for rooms that have the same spatial configuration, even if your perspective is shifted. So if you are looking at a room, you have to be able to recognize that this is the same room, same furniture, same arrangements, but your perspective has shifted by, you know, 30 degrees or so. Hmm. In the other half of the trials, we call those art trials, we tell people, look at the paintings and try to identify paintings that were painted by the same artist. So you’re trying to identify paintings that are similar in terms of the, the choice of color, the, the content, the brush strokes, and so on. So that was a way that we could try to manipulate different types of relational tension and see the effects on the hippocampus.
Paul 00:31:00 And, and those effects, uh, were not, uh, the signature of those effects. Were not, um, born out in the overall bold activity. Right. But the, but the, what you were just referring to is the stability of the, of the patterns. So could you just describe that a little bit more?
Mariam 00:31:17 Sure. So interestingly, we actually saw opposite effects on the bold activity and the stability measures. So in the hippocampus, we surprisingly observed robust deactivation when people paid attention to the room versus the arch. Um, so this was unexpected for two reasons. One is that prior studies didn’t show any modulation of overall bold signals. So we were surprised to see an effect there. But the second reason it was surprising is the robust deactivation for the room versus the art task, because there’s so much literature suggesting the hippocampus should care more about spatial features. Um, but surprisingly we saw the flip of that in the stability measure, where hippocampal activity patterns were much more stable across different room attention trials than different art attention trials. And this stability measure also predicted how well people did on the task. So this suggested two things to us. So first, the signatures of attention in the hippocampus might be different from those in neocortical areas. And second, that deactivation doesn’t necessarily mean disengagement. So you could have deactivation in the hippocampus for spatial attention, but more robust and more stable patterns that predict people’s behavior.
Paul 00:32:41 I, I just wanna a, okay, so this is another aside, but F M R I has always given me pause, um, because, so I, I, I grew up in science recording single cell, um, activity and non-human primates, right? So action potentials. So of course, I’m biased to action potential signals, right? But, um, I, I understand the value of F M R I, but the interpretation has always been somewhat up in the air. I mean, there have been, you know, plenty of studies looking at how bold signal relates to local field potentials and spiking activity. But, um, so, so, okay. One thing is you mentioned that maybe, uh, attention is modulating the hippocampus different than it does differently, than it does, um, more sensory related cortical neocortical areas. Um, so one question would be, why would that be <laugh>? And, and sort of another question would be like, are we just missing, uh, stability information because we’re not measuring it in like early visual cortex, uh, for example, maybe before I ask? Sure.
Mariam 00:33:47 Yeah. Those
Paul 00:33:47 Are great questions. Go ahead. Yeah.
Mariam 00:33:49 Yeah. Um, so I will say we, we did also observe stability in visual areas. So they also showed modulation of how stable their activity patterns were across the two tasks. Some showed more stability for the room versus art, some showed the other way around. Um, however, in cortical areas, those stability measures will highly relate it to the fact that those areas showed more bold activity for one task than the
Paul 00:34:16 Other. Everything went up. And that, so, and therefore you could say it’s more stable. Is that the
Mariam 00:34:20 Exactly, yeah. So paray capal cortex love scenes, uh, it’s more active for room attention than art attention. Its patterns are more stable for room than art attention. But that stability was because voxels that are more active were more stable across different room trials. So, um, so that suggested to us that maybe the, the neocortical signal was a little bit different than the hippocampal signal where activity and stability were dissociated and unrelated at the voxel level. Um, but I do wanna acknowledge that the bolt signal looks different in hippocampus and in neocortical areas. And the coupling between aspects of the bold signals and local field potentials is also different across the hippocampus and neocortex.
Paul 00:35:09 So, oh, I didn’t know that. What, what, what is that relation?
Mariam 00:35:12 So, um, some studies have found that there seems to be sometimes a lack of relationship between bold signal and hippocampus and different aspects of the local field potential. Um, whereas in neocortical areas, it’s usually a, a relationship, a positive relationship. So for example, um, gamma could be related to higher bold signal mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Um, that’s not to say that the bold signal is not meaningful in hippocampus, just that it might not be as closely tied to some aspects of, of neuro firing. Um, so if I was gonna amend what I said earlier, it’s not necessarily, the attention acts differently on hippocampus than neocortical areas, but the way that we’re measuring it with FM r i looks different, looks different in the hippocampus versus neocortical areas.
Paul 00:36:07 So I’ve always had this naive thought that, oh, so, so years ago, uh, there was a correlation made between the L F P signal and bold signal and oxygen levels. And, uh, the interpretation of that is that, uh, bold is more of a measure of incoming signals, right? Um, signals coming into the dendrites, and less, uh, a measure of outgoing signals less, less, it’s less correlated with spiking activity. And one interpretation of that is, uh, that, you know, a brain area is working harder, um, when there’s higher bold, right? Uh, uh, is another, and I’m sorry if I, I don’t know this from the literature, but another interpretation of that is that it’s less efficient. It’s working less efficiently because it’s having to, uh, you could imagine a circuit, right? In some very automated behavior that just fires really quickly and gives rise to very little bold. And maybe that’s related to the lower activation and the stability patterns that, that you saw. And Sure. So one interpretation of bold anywhere in the brain is that it, it, a higher bold means less efficient processing, and which is kind of the opposite of a higher bold signal means that area is, um, involved in the task more than some other area, right? Sure.
Mariam 00:37:24 Yeah, I, I agree with that completely. And I think based on my work, I’m very hesitant to conclude that lower versus higher relative bold signal necessarily means anything in particular. Um, the fact that there’s differentiation in the bold signal across tasks means that there is a signal related to the task. But in terms of whether more is better or less is better, I, I’m not gonna reach conclusions, at least based on the, the work that I’ve done and I’ve seen. Um, so we interpreted the hippocampal effect exactly the way that you mentioned. So lower activity, more stability, um, might mean more efficient processing or, um, kind of silencing of irrelevant information. So you have low activity, maybe only the neurons that are, of course, I’m jumping to neurons, which is a big leap, <laugh>, why not based on fm, I, but could mean that only the neurons that are the most relevant are firing, and there is suppression of the ones that are irrelevant or not needed, which could lead to lower activity, but more, more stability. Um, here is where I, I think it’s really important that we not just focus on F M R I, but the conversions of results from FM r I and other methods. So for example, if FM r I told you that the hippocampus, um, seemed to be disengaged by a particular task, but then hippocampal lesion patients cannot perform while on that task, then we should amend our interpretation of F M R I. Does it mean that less activity is disengagement? It means that there might be more efficient processing or something else that’s going on? Hmm.
Paul 00:39:05 Maybe we should, uh, talk about how, I mean, you’ve studied, first of all, um, well, first of all, you’ve, um, caused me to start smoking again with some of your <laugh>, uh, research. Oh, no. <laugh>. No, I’m just kidding. I just inject nicotine, uh, or acetylcholine. Yes. Funny. Yeah. <laugh>. But, but your results could, uh, potentially make, cause someone to, uh, rethink whether they should quit smoking. Um, you know, because yes, you’ve looked at, uh, uh, effects both for damaged hippocampal, um, in patients with lesions to the hippocampus and how, uh, tension affects memory in that way. And you did a smoking smokers, uh, study. Um, so, so how, how, uh, what have you found, um, with smokers and with <laugh> damaged, uh, hippocampi?
Mariam 00:39:57 Sure. I’ll, I’ll start with the hippocampal lesion patients, but without first, um, just mentioning a caveat that, you know, every time I talk about this work, I, I try to encourage people to not smoke because of the, the results of the study that the effects that we see on behavior, um, while positive, um, are not going to outweigh the devastating effects on one’s health
Paul 00:40:18 Unless, unless all you care about is having a better attentional effect. <laugh>,
Mariam 00:40:23 Indeed. Yeah, that’s true. And of course, you know, I’ve, um, I’m appreciative that we have been able to use, um, samples of cigarette smokers to get some of the insights I’ll share with you. But, um, of course, it would be better if people didn’t smoke in general, despite the, the benefits it gives to me personally for my, for my research.
Paul 00:40:41 Ha ha. Have you had like, uh, media outlets like, reach out to you? Because this is sort of a, something that would be, would make for a good headline, right? Smoking in
Mariam 00:40:51 That’s, yeah. I, I’m trying to wonder, um, just trying to remember if they have, I don’t think anybody has reached out about that particular study. We’ll see what happens after, after this podcast. Oh, sure,
Paul 00:41:00 Of course. Yeah. Ok. <laugh>
Mariam 00:41:02 <laugh>. Um, but yeah, so to, to backtrack a little bit. So, um, we had designed this art gallery task that we initially had used in fmri. And, um, you know, the story there is that hit THEC campus, sh was modulated by the task and seemed to be particularly important when people who are paying attention to spatial relationships. Um, so the next two questions we wanted to ask is, um, is this hippocampal modulation actually critical? So, um, is it doing something necessary for the performance of that task? And if so, how, how is that happening? Or why is it happening? So we found, uh, we recruited a sample of patients with medial temporal lobe damage. So of course, the first caveat here is their damage was not restricted to the hippocampus. Yeah. Some of them had, um, more extensive lesions. And even for the patient whose damage seemed to be restricted to the hippocampus, of course there’s gonna be broader network abnormalities.
Mariam 00:41:58 Um, but the, the main lesions in these patients were in the hippocampus and surrounding cortex, and we had them do a version of the art gallery task where they’re trying to find rooms with the same spacial layout or trying to find paintings by the same artist. And we find that these patients are, um, totally fine when they’re trying to find paintings by the same artist, and they are very impaired when they’re trying to find rooms with the same spatial layout. So statistically that the patient group was not different from chance levels, and I’ll say here that, you know, we showed them two images on each trial. The images were on for a couple of seconds mm-hmm. <affirmative> with, you know, a couple hundred milliseconds between them. So everything was, should be within the realm of, you know, online perception, potentially working memory. There weren’t any demands to encode anything into, into long term memory. So from that study, it seemed that the medial temporal lobe generally is probably doing something critical for the performance of the task, because these patients could do other attention tasks, but were at chance at finding rooms with the same spatial configuration. Um, so that’s why I kind of linked earlier to conversion results between FM r I and patient studies. So hippocampus showed deactivation for the room task, but, but it seems to be playing a really critical role in performance of that task.
Paul 00:43:23 Do, can I just ask, uh, interject, because we were talking about, you know, the, the classic roles of hippocampus and abstraction being one of them when we talked about how abstraction and, and concepts are related to relational, uh, processing. And it’s, it seems like, um, judging whether the same painting was hung on the wall in different presentations of the stimulus is somewhat related to abstraction and, uh, concept formation. And I, maybe not, maybe it’s just related to statistical features of the art or, or something like that. But in, in that sense, um, your results, do they argue against a role, uh, of, for the, for abstraction in the hippocampus? Does that make sense?
Mariam 00:44:09 Yeah, that’s, yeah, it does make sense. I guess that that hasn’t been the way that I’ve been framing the past, but I think it is an appropriate way to think about it. So when you’re trying to find rooms with the same spatial configuration, you might consider that as a demand to abstract away from the specific features you’re looking at with any given snapshot of the room, and to find the same high level relationship in another view of the room. So something I didn’t mention earlier actually, is that the rooms with the same spatial layout were different in other ways. So we changed the wall colors, we swap chairs with different chairs. So you couldn’t do the task just by looking for identical features that repeated you had to form a higher level abstracted representation of the spatial layout that wasn’t so dependent on the specific visual features you saw. And Right. Same for the art. Um, but the, the paintings were not identical, but had abstract similarities.
Paul 00:45:05 Right. But, but the, the effect that you found was specifically for the s spatial layouts. Right. So it’s, it does seem to be much more spatially, I guess, spatial memory abstraction. I guess you can, there there’s room for all three of those interpretations.
Mariam 00:45:21 Sure. Yeah. I guess what I would, what I wish in hindsight I would’ve done differently is how to task task that was as relational as the room task, but in a nons spatial domain. Hmm. So when we got the results we got, which we, we were actually a little surprised because we thought the art task would be quite relational as well. Um, we realized that there are probably ways to do the art task based on paying attention to individual features or summaries of features like color. And although that wouldn’t be a perfect strategy, it might get you decently, decently good performance. Um, so one interpretation of our results is the hippocampus really cares about space. The other interpretation is maybe the spatial task was more relational and the art task was less relational. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And if we’d had a better task that had as much spacial, sorry, as much relational demands as the room task, but not spatial, then the campus might have been just as involved. Um, the challenge there is to Yeah. You know, quantify. Right.
Paul 00:46:28 Professional. That’s what I was gonna ask you. Have you had thoughts on how to do that <laugh>?
Mariam 00:46:34 I, I, so I, I don’t know. The best way of doing that space is a really convenient way of studying relationships because you know what the relationships are. Yeah. And you can manipulate them very precisely, you know, chair to the left or right of table. Um, time is another future where you could manipulate relationships. So relative temporal onsets, for example, um, with art, maybe we, you know, went a little too high level and it was a little difficult to define what the relations were in the first place. Um, and how many of them there were obviously,
Paul 00:47:12 Do you know the study of the relational, uh, birds that are, have been used? Like where the, the birds Oh, Tim Barrons. Yeah. By Tim Barrons. Um, I’m wondering if you could just use, uh, those, those stimuli somehow. I’m not sure if he quantified the, I guess you can quantify how much the legs are stretched and the, the necks and stuff like that. So that might be something, but then that’s also kind of spatial.
Mariam 00:47:34 Yeah, that’s an interesting idea. I guess. Um, it’s also kind of an object insofar that’s a self-contained, um, you know, a duck is more object like than it is, um, a scene, which could be okay, but there is work suggesting that the hippocampus might care less about relationships within objects Yeah. Than relationships across scenes. But it would be a, it would be a good control task where you could at least manipulate different relations in a different type of stimulus.
Paul 00:48:08 All right. Anyway, I’ll get my people on it and we’ll figure this out how to, uh,
Mariam 00:48:12 <laugh>. Perfect. Let me know when you do.
Paul 00:48:14 Okay. Yeah. Okay. So, but I interrupted you and I don’t remember where we were if, um,
Mariam 00:48:19 Oh yes. The, um, the cigarette smoking study. Oh, sure. Um, so, so based on our fion and patient data, we thought that we had some evidence that the, the campus is important in, um, attending to spatial relationships during these, these rapid online attention tasks. And we wanted to understand the mechanisms by which that happened. So what are the neuromodulatory systems that might, uh, allow the hit the campus to contribute to performance in perception tasks? And we were very motivated by computational modeling studies and work with rodent models showing that the hippocampus might switch between states that are optimized for attending to the external world and states that are optimized for retrieving memories. So these kind of switches between internal and external nodes, and that work suggested that the acetylcholine neurotransmitter system might be important for biasing the hippocampus toward this outward state where it’s paying attention to the outside world rather than to internal memories.
Mariam 00:49:27 So we thought, you know, if that’s true, then if you manipulate the cholinergic system, you might be able to get people to perform better on attention and perception tasks that are recruiting the hippocampus. So what I really wanted to do is, you know, a double blind pharmacological manipulation with a, a cholinergic agonist versus a placebo and, and see whether we could get, uh, better performance on hippocampal tasks with, uh, cholinergic agonists. Um, but you couldn’t, the problem was, you know, yeah. Well, so I, I was my, in my, you know, first or second year and as assistant professor, so I just starting my lab, um, and the, the advice I got was, you know, maybe don’t do this before tenure, you know, it could take five years. It was very, um, logistically challenging to do
Paul 00:50:23 That. Yeah. And, and yeah, a long time. Yeah. But okay. But, but then they, but then the, okay, so then the other route is just to recruit smokers, I suppose.
Mariam 00:50:33 Yeah, exactly. So my, my first thought was, okay, maybe I’ll put this project on hold and revisit it after tenure when I can, you know, have the, um, have the flexibility and the time to do a study that could take many years and be logistically very challenging. Um, but then I was, you know, talking to other people in the department, um, and one student said, why don’t you just test cigarette smokers? Um, and I thought, you know, if it’s between not doing this project or maybe waiting five to eight years and doing it, versus just, you know, having a fun study on the side, why not just do it and, and see what happens?
Paul 00:51:10 How messed up though is, is our current system, right? Our current system, that that really affects your research, thinking about your career and what is good for your career versus what is best for science. And we don’t need to perseverate on this issue, but it’s just a shame.
Mariam 00:51:27 I think it is. And you know, some people, um, will say, you know what? I’m just gonna do the research I want to do regardless of whether it’s ideal for me right now. I was a little too, too scared to do that. Um, rightly so. And I figured, yeah. And I think it would be better if we prioritize slow careful science, um, you know, rather than counting publications or looking at where those papers are published. I think there should be a lot of credit given to people who do studies carefully and slowly and well powered and reach conclusions that are robust and replicable. Um, but
Paul 00:52:06 For now, I don’t think we’re Do those, those, yeah. Well, at least in the United States, right? I, I think that there are systems in Europe where you’re automatically a, you know, you, you sign up in your tenure, tenure tract unless you screw it up or something like that, right? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Anyway, this is a political conversation, uh, now, but at, at this point, maybe people should go to Europe if they wanna do slow careful science <laugh>.
Mariam 00:52:27 Yeah. I, I do hope there could be a cultural shift towards slow and team science too, that there, there’s no need for, you know, individual labs to kind of try to do everything alone and potentially reproduce the same Yeah. Scientific question. And same experiments across labs rather than collaborating. It might be a better use of money as well. Um, so I do hope that maybe we’ll move towards that in the future.
Paul 00:52:55 You know what, uh, one good use of money is not is, is purchasing cigarettes because they’re very expensive.
Mariam 00:53:02 Yes, indeed. <laugh>. Yeah. So, um, so that, that that’ll take me back to the study where we, you know, decided just initially it was like a fun side project. You know, why not just try it, see what happens, and, um, it’s successful. That could open the door to a lot more people being able to do pharmacological manipulations, people who don’t have access to, uh, the resources at the medical schools that are needed to do other types of, of drug studies. Um, so we recruited people who smoke cigarettes, um, and we asked them to participate in two sessions. One was one in which they, they woke up, they smoked the usual amount, they smoke, and then they, these comments,
Paul 00:53:44 These, but these are light smokers. I’m sorry to interrupt. They were very light smokers, right? Yeah.
Mariam 00:53:48 Yes. And that’s, um, a critical point to make. So thank you for bringing that up. Um, we selected people who were relatively light cigarette smokers who, um, did not count as, uh, dependent based on a questionnaire that we gave them. And the reason for that was to avoid the withdrawal effects that you would get with people who are heavier cigarette smokers. So these were people who smoked maybe a few cigarettes a week. Um, so they would, um, come in, they, they smoked, you know, one or so cigarette. They came into our lab, they did the same study that we used with the hippocampal lesion patients. Um, and we compared that to a session in which we told them to not smoke for 12 hours before coming into the lab. Both sessions were first thing in the morning, so it’s not that we were asking them to, you know, go entire, entire day without smoking.
Mariam 00:54:37 They went to sleep, they woke up, maybe had a few hours, and they came to the lab. Um, so then we had an on nicotine session and an an off nicotine session. Um, we, we were not very confident that people would follow our instructions, <laugh>, so mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Um, we purchased a carbon monoxide monitor, um, for people to, to breathe into. So carbon monoxide turns out to be a very effective way of measuring how recently someone has smoked a tobacco cigarette. So if you smoke, um, carbon monoxide levels go up and they decline slowly over, over hours. And this measure is also very highly correlated with nicotine levels in the person’s blood. So we could use this carbon monoxide measure to make sure that people, you know, followed our instructions, um, cause and second to have a measure of nicotine.
Paul 00:55:35 Cause because what you’re saying is all smokers are liars. I, I get the, oh, I see the causal connection here. <laugh>.
Mariam 00:55:42 I, I generally have very low faith in people following instructions. Of
Paul 00:55:46 Course. Yeah,
Mariam 00:55:47 Sure, sure. Um, across the board, you know, and that, that includes everybody. Um, but yeah, so we had this carbon monoxide level, um, for each individual, and we had their performance when they were on nicotine and their performance when they were off nicotine. And what we found was that individual differences in these carbon monoxide levels, so essentially a measure of how much more someone smoked, um, versus off nicotine predicted the performance enhancement on the, the hippocampal mediated room task. So the people that showed, um, you know, more smoking in the on versus off session tended to show the greatest boost to their performance when they were on nicotine, specifically in the hippocampal mediated task and not some other controlled tasks that we had. Um, so that was consistent with the idea that higher cholinergic signaling might bias the hippocampus toward this external attention mode that could improve your performance on external attention tasks that hippocampal processing.
Paul 00:57:00 How important are these attentional effects? Like how big are they? Right. For instance, um, and I’m jumping ahead here, but, uh, one of the things that you’ve studied is, uh, how attention on states when people are at high, highly attentive states versus when they’re not paying attention to something, how that affects memory. And you found effects there, but then compared to what’s called the temporal, uh, context, organizational structure of memory, essentially, where sure, when you think back in time, you don’t remember things out of order, you remember things in the order in which they happened at the time, and that effect was just dominant, right? Um, mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And so I’m not sure if this is a, a fair question to say, you know, I’m not asking you like how much power your results, uh, yielded, right? Uh, statistically, but just your overall picture of how much attention is affecting our memory
Mariam 00:57:58 Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Sure. Yeah. I think attention can have stronger effects on some types of memories and others and different levels of attention also matter a great deal. So if you take an extreme example, if you are paying attention to a movie versus completely zoned out looking at your phone, taking a nap, you’re not gonna remember the movie in that latter case. So, um, whether you’re paying attention to something or not, whether your attention is full or divided, those will have robust effects on your memory. Other types of attention might matter a little bit less. So say that you are, you know, generally on task and paying attention, but every once in a while, you know, you’re paying a little bit more attention than others. Hmm. In that case, your memory might still be decent in those periods where you’re, you’re, you know, um, out of the zone not paying attention as much because you’re still generally on task. So I think, uh, yeah, some types of attention matter more than others for memory. And if you’re generally attentive, more might get in than, than you would expect.
Paul 00:59:04 I, I’m, I was trying to, in preparation for this conversation, there’s a phenomenon that I’ve experienced personally, and I assume other people experience it also. So I’ll ask you about it. I have found that, so obviously at when you, you know, are paying attention to what you’re doing, you’re more likely to remember it better. But then there are certain things in my personal experiences, and I, I cannot conjure one right now where I just can’t seem to remember something. You know, like, um, and there are experiences where I think to myself, ah, pay attention now. Right? Like studying for a test or something. I, this is what I need to remember. Focus, pay attention. You know? So it’s sort, sort of a self-talk and a desire to pay attention. And there are certain types of memory, I suppose, for which that does not work for me, for which I fail over and over, even though I am trying my hardest to pay attention. I am, I’m kind of confident that I won’t remember it later, and then I don’t, uh, so what’s wrong with me?
Mariam 01:00:02 Oh, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with you in particular. That’s, that’s the good news, <laugh>. Um, so I think all of us probably have that experience. I think part of it is because, um, attention matters, but it also matters how you engage with the material. So, um, for example, I’ll give it, I’ll give an example for when I was in college and, and trying to study for exams, you know, and I, I’d read the, the textbook and I’d tell myself, you know, you gotta remember these details. And I would, I would try to like highlight the ones that I thought were more relevant. But it felt like in the act of highlighting and trying, you’re discarding that I was like doing the work, but I wasn’t. Yeah. You know, it was like offloading. Yeah. It was like, highlighting is not the same as committing to memory.
Mariam 01:00:44 Um, and I wouldn’t remember anything I read. So I think it, it wasn’t the intention that was enough. It’s how I engaged with the material. And I felt like trying to form rich connections or associations and testing myself was a lot more effective. So not just like, this detail is important, try to remember it, but how can I remember this? How can I link this to other things that I know? What are the, uh, features of it that I think will help me access it later? And then trying to test myself on it, you know, 5, 10, 15 minutes later or day later to make sure that I, I retained it.
Paul 01:01:23 So you fixed yourself. And I, I’m just a poor learner, I suppose, is the,
Mariam 01:01:28 No, I still have that experience, particularly for real life events or, um,
Paul 01:01:33 Where you’re not consciously thinking I need to engage in it in a certain way and do some interval training and do some Yeah. That,
Mariam 01:01:39 Yeah, that then I, I, I’ve terrible memory for a lot of things, including movies and books, um, even if I’m engaging with them, and I would like to remember them, you know, they’re there in my mind for a while and they’re, they’re gone later <laugh>. Um, and I think part of it is because, uh, I’m at least a lot more distractible than I, than I think I am. So I’ve caught myself a lot, um, mind wandering when I’m reading or watching television or whatever. And I think it’s, it’s not that, um, you know, I’m trying to remember some places, but I’m often switching to my internal mode and thinking about things that I need to get done. And that’s just
Paul 01:02:17 Distracting. You need to start that smoking, right. Smoke when, when you read
Mariam 01:02:20 <laugh>. That’s right. Maybe.
Paul 01:02:23 All right. Well, so, so we’ve talked a lot about, uh, how, um, attention affects memory, but you also go the other way and you study how memory, uh, can affect our attention. Um, and, and in this particular case that I’m thinking of, you’re, you’re looking at hippocampus and medial prefrontal cortex. Um, maybe you can just say a word about what you found about, uh, how memory itself in turn affects attention as well.
Mariam 01:02:48 Sure. Yeah. So a lot of the ways people study attention, and a lot of ways I’ve studied attention in the past is telling people what to pay attention to. And of course, that’s common in many aspects of life. You know, you’re, you’re teaching and you’re telling people, Hey, pay attention to this lecture I’m giving. Um, attention is also sometimes captured automatically if something, if you hear a loud noise or you know, something jumps in front of you, your attention is gonna be captured by that. Um, but there’s also been a lot of interest in how memories, so our memories of past experiences guide what we pay attention to in a particular setting. And we’ve been really interested in how our long-term memories can affect what we pay attention to or service guides for our attention. Um, so we were interested in seeing hippocampal contributions to memory guided attention with the idea that if your memory tells you what to pay attention to, you can prepare better.
Mariam 01:03:43 Um, so if you know that, um, you’re going to walk into a room and the, you know, the projector is in a particular setup, and you know where the lecture is going to be, you can have anticipatory attention to the, the correct place in the room. Um, and we were inspired by a lot of the work in, in memory research showing hippocampus anticipation signals. Um, and we were interested in whether the hippocampus can anticipate what you’re about to pay attention to. And so we had people do tasks where they could, um, based on memory, know what they’re supposed to pay attention to in an upcoming trial. This was, again, the art gallery task. So you could know in the next few seconds, I have to pay attention to spatial configuration or to artistic style. And the general finding was a hippocampus showed a preparation signal. So it’s activity patterns when you’re about to do a room task are the same as the activity patterns when you’re gonna do the room task. So it’s as if it has this, um, preparatory configuration so that you can do the task, um, you know, with a, with a headstart when you, when you start the trial,
Paul 01:04:55 How does it get that preparatory configuration? Because one way to think about that as well, you have to then attend to the appropriate memory, right? To, so then it’s like attention grabbing the right memory, and then the memory is gonna affect the attention.
Mariam 01:05:11 Sure. Yeah. There was a couple of different ways that you could think about the preparation signal. So one is maybe the hippocampus is retrieving similar memories, so it’s retrieving memories of other times you’ve done that task. And the preparation signal is just you thinking of those memories. Another way to think about it is that, you know, generally what it’s like when you have to process spatial information, so maybe your attentional state has to be wider or broader. And so it’s a relatively abstract attentional set gear towards specific types of
Paul 01:05:43 Information. So it’s like it gears up and by gearing up, it puts it into that, uh, maybe we could say low, low, bold, or more stable, uh, set Sure. State, um, to prepare because it needs to be online for the task at hand.
Mariam 01:05:59 Yeah. That’s the general idea. At least that’s how we interpret the data. Yeah.
Paul 01:06:03 But you saw these same, same kinds of signals in medial prefrontal cortex, right?
Mariam 01:06:08 That’s right. The, the difference between the hippocampus and medial prefrontal signal, if I’m remembering correctly, is that the hippocampus showed more preparation when your attention was guided by memory, rather than just us telling you that you have to pay attention.
Paul 01:06:25 And wasn’t it, um, more there was a bigger effect for the spatial aspect as well, and medial prefrontal cortex didn’t care as much about that relational spatial aspect? Or maybe, I’m not remembering.
Mariam 01:06:40 Yeah, I don’t remember if we found that particular Yeah. Result, I think there, we just focused on preparing for either room or art, but didn’t separately look at preparation for spatial versus nons spatial.
Paul 01:06:50 So then zooming way out, uh, which is unfair to do, to ask you to make the, a grand sweeping conclusion about attention and memory in the relation between them, what, you know, what kind of big picture do you have in mind for how attention and, and memory are related and interact? And then of course, how that happens in brains. <laugh>.
Mariam 01:07:11 That’s a very big question, <laugh>. So I think
Paul 01:07:14 You have, you have 12 seconds to answer. No, I’m just
Mariam 01:07:16 Kidding. Oh, no, <laugh>. Uh, I think the general way reviewing it is that there’s no, uh, clear dividing line between attentional systems and memory systems, but they have to be fundamentally interactive and that attention can shape what your memory systems are doing and, and how they’re doing that. And these memory systems can also then affect what you’re paying attention to and affect different attentional systems.
Paul 01:07:43 But do you, okay, so, um, attention is notoriously slippery just conceptually and Sure, in terms of mechanisms, et cetera, but memory also is still historically debatable how many different forms we have. Um, you know, there’s the encoding, the storage aspect, the retrieval, I mean, there’s all these different facets of memory. Do you, where are we in terms of understanding what memory is and how it works and what attention is and how it works? How do you view that in, in the large scheme of things? Mm-hmm.
Mariam 01:08:13 <affirmative>. Yeah. I think the challenge there is that there’s many types of memory and there’s many types of attention. Um, and they can look very different. So it’s not always clear that they’re really the same cognitive process that we’re studying, depending on the specific instantiation of memory or attention that you’re looking at. So attention that’s automatically captured by sudden movement might look very different in the brain than attention that’s guided by your memory. You can prepare to direct your attention to a specific visual feature, a specific location and space, a specific type of task. And those are all going to look very different as
Paul 01:08:52 Well, specific memory,
Mariam 01:08:53 Um, or a specific memory. Yep. And likewise, you might be interested in memory for an episode. So our conversation today, you might be interested in your memory for how to tie your shoes or how to ride a bike, and all of those are going to look very different. Um, so I think the, the cognitive labels of memory and attention are very useful because, um, they are convenient shorthands that we all intuitively understand and can communicate and also allow us to communicate our science to the public. Um, but it might not be that your brain respects those particular divisions. There might be so much variation within memory or attention that one word to describe them doesn’t adequately capture the way that your brain represents the different features. But they’re, they’re convenient shorthands for talking about our science.
Paul 01:09:45 Well, I mean, you know, I, I mentioned that the, the smoking study, right, would make for a good fodder for a headline. And, and then I thought, well, that, what would that headline be? You know, it’s something like smoking, um, improves attention, right? And, and maybe I’m doing a disservice by even like saying that out loud, but then that masks, um, so many subtleties and details of what attention is. Um, and, you know, is it carbon monoxide <laugh> or is it, uh, you know, what, you know Sure. The subtleties of the study. Um, I don’t know, maybe that’s just commentary, but I, I I just continue to grapple with these psychological notions that we are continually refining. Um, so yeah. So I was just kind of curious in your own head how comfortable you are with these sort of shorthand notions, but I guess for someone, an expert like you, that shorthand notion opens up this wide, um, net of detail that then you can explore that, uh, more detailed conceptual space as well.
Mariam 01:10:45 Exactly. Yeah. I, I like to, um, differentiate between concepts that I think are useful for communication and ones that I think are useful for shaping our research. Hmm. So I think the difference between perception and memory is important for, for talking about what we’re studying and, um, talking to the public and, you know, loved ones about aspects of our experience. People intuitively understand that when you talk about memory, you’re talking about your representation of something that might have happened a while ago that is no longer here. Um, and when you’re talking about perception, you’re talking about something that’s in front of you. Um, and I think that’s useful. It’s a good shorthand for, you know, introducing our tasks to each other, for example. But it’s not so useful for thinking about how the brain and cognition are carved, because it’s very difficult to separate perception and memory in behavior. You can’t have memory for something you never perceived. Um, but in the brain, probably, in my opinion, is not divided along the lines of perception and memory. There’s no module in the brain where perception ends and memory suddenly begins. So I think these concepts, um, are not going to define the way that I ask particular research questions, but they’re still useful for talking about and communicating the research.
Paul 01:12:12 You know, you said modular, and I, I’ve recently had Louise Paso on and Michael Anderson, and, um, we’ve talked about the breakdown of that traditional modular view of the brain that everything is in these well-defined modules. And I know that you are interest, I mean, I know that you, you basically agree with that, essentially, right? Because, uh, uh, you, you’ve written about it multiple times and thinking of the hippocampus as a module and, uh, the memory module. And yet, you know, when you look at, um, networks and functional connectivity and look at resting state networks, um, there are different quote unquote modules, um, of, of the brain in terms of these larger dynamic networks. How modular is the brain?
Mariam 01:12:56 Yeah, that’s, it’s, it’s modular and it’s not, so it’s modular. You can have modularity in terms of particular areas that are more likely to form networks with each other than others or, um, different brain states that you might switch between. But I don’t think those modules map onto discreet cognitive processes, that you don’t have one network that only does memory and nothing else, or a network that only does perception and nothing else. And those networks communicate. So even if there are some systems that are more connected or more coupled than others, it doesn’t mean that they’re not also sharing information and receiving information from the other networks. Um, so in that sense, there is some modularity, there’s some, uh, systems in the brain that maybe show, um, a bias to communicate with each other or might be preferentially associated with some types of information processing. But I don’t think that information processing then has a one-to-one mapping with a type of cognition. So, for example, I think relational representations are a very important aspect of hippocampal function, but these relational representations can be used for perception and memory and problem solving and language and attention and creativity and lots of other domains.
Paul 01:14:17 I was gonna ask, what, what would we do different studying Hm. These days under that, uh, under that perspective?
Mariam 01:14:25 Yeah, it’s a great question. Um, it’s a challenge because, you know, when you’re first discovering a particular phenomenon, it’s very reasonable to try to understand, you know, what is this brain area doing and what it’s, what is it not doing? And to study that using the particular tasks that are available to you at that time, at time, um, and over time you could try to, you know, find the blurriness between the, the different boxes or the different tasks that you’ve used, or maybe find how the tasks are different, not only because of memory versus, um, attention, but also in the representations or the complexity of the stimuli. Um, but I think, you know, the way that Hm was studied was a very reasonable way to start. Yeah. Um, and then the further the research goes, the, the more you’re able to find the blurriness between the different tasks and concepts.
Paul 01:15:22 Yeah. I mean, I gu there’s a lot of reinterpretation of what the results mean these days, right? Sure. With, with, with h Im, which is at this point, all, all we can do, we need, I guess we need another, Hm. But let’s not hope for that. Um, <laugh>, how, how modular is the mind, right? So, um, you, you talked about there not being a one-to-one mapping between the brain area and a cognitive function, but how, how, you know, are cognitive functions given your research, studying the interactions between what we use shorthand, uh, you know, we use shorthand words for memory, uh, attention, but there’s just this massive interaction. There seems to be this massive interaction between these cognitive functions. So how modular is, uh, is cognition <laugh>
Mariam 01:16:08 <laugh>? I I can’t be very modular? I think so I, I always talk about the relationship between memory and perception when I teach, because, you know, vision is something that seems to be very, you know, sensory. You open your eyes and you see things. Um, but memory and learning play a huge role in perception. And so I sometimes tell my students about these studies of people who, you know, have been blind since childhood or birth and regained sight in adulthood. And if vision was just, you know, your eyes getting light and you seeing, then you would expect that an adult who regains sight would open their eyes and they’d see just the same way that you and I do. But that’s, that’s not what happens. So these people who regain sight in adulthood actually have a lot of trouble making sense of what they see. And that means that seeing requires experience and learning, and that means it requires memory.
Mariam 01:17:07 Um, there’s also, you know, when when you see an object, you’re of course, you know, um, using the pattern of light that hits your eyes to interpret what that object is, but you’re also using your memories and other information. So if the object is partly occluded, you’re able to use your memories and experiences to, uh, figure out what the full object looks like. So perception requires memory. Um, there can’t be memory without perception because what would you learn and remember unless it was something that you had a sensory experience with. Um, so I think it’s very easy to find ways that the mind can’t be modular, but has to be interactive. Hmm.
Paul 01:17:53 Given, given all your research, um, do you <laugh> here’s where the fun part, here’s where the fun part is. Uh, do, do you have practical advice for people who are trying to improve their, uh, attention, improve their memory, how to go, you know, have you altered anything about your daily, uh, going about life, et cetera?
Mariam 01:18:15 Sure. I’ll do attention first and then I’ll do memory. Okay. So the, the attention part is, um, like I mentioned earlier, I’ve noticed how distractable I am, and particularly how often when I should be paying attention to stuff around me. I’m instead mind wandering or planning or thinking about something that happened earlier in the day. And if you start to pay attention to how often that happens, for me, at least, it happens all the time. <laugh>. Yeah. Um, so I’m trying to be better at, you know, trying to live in the moment and appreciate what’s there, and by constantly reminding myself to try to focus on, you know, things that I’m looking at or things that I’m hearing. And when I catch myself doing that, mind wandering to try to put myself back into this externally oriented mode.
Paul 01:19:06 But you have to remember to do that, to do that,
Mariam 01:19:08 I have to remember to do that. I, some people might be better at it than I am. People who engage in meditation practices might be able to better kind of keep themselves attuned to the here and now and the sensory signals around them. I, I just, I’m constantly living in my head, so I have to remind myself to, you know, to switch and pay attention to, you know, what I’m doing now. And, um, appreciate, um, the sights and sounds around me. Um, from memory, I think, uh, intentionally engaging with material in a deep way. So trying to find associations between what you’re trying to remember and other things that, you know, um, making mnemonic aids for yourself, um, and testing yourself are, are really key. So trying to generate the information rather than just read it and assume that you remember, remember it. Um, one way to do that is, you know, telling people the things you learned that day. So, oh my God, you know, if you saw a cool talk, you can try to tell somebody, try to tell your wife about the cool talk, and that might help you remember it a little bit better.
Paul 01:20:19 Yeah. Um, have you ever, so this mind, like, I’m always in my head as well, so what you’re saying is really resonating with me, and I, uh, immediately feel sorry for you because I feel sorry for myself or, and or, and embar and am embarrassed that it’s much better these days. But I remember in high school, and especially in college, I would read an entire chapter and then realized I was mind wandering the entire time, and I, my eyes had scanned all the words. Um, I perceptually took it all in and had, it was just gone. Um, and I always thought that that was just, uh, me, you know, that I’m particularly poor at focusing or something, uh, but maybe it’s a little more widespread than I’m appreciating.
Mariam 01:21:04 It happens to me all the time. And I, I think it also coincides with how, uh, you know, how stressful the other things in my life are, um, and how boring what I’m reading is <laugh>. So, um, you know, it’s a particularly boring thing and I’m very stressed. There’s no way I’m gonna remember anything that I’m reading. Yeah.
Paul 01:21:23 Uh, so you, you said stress and, um, another thing that you write about, uh, uh, or have written about is your kind of trajectory in science and throughout your career and some of your own personal struggles. So if you don’t mind, I would love to just kind of talk about that and, um, where you are these days and you know, how you think about that. So I was surprised when you mentioned that you, like me, uh, are constantly just in your head and mind wandering and, um, maybe struggle with focus and depending on stress levels and stuff, because I was, you know, having read, um, a little bit about your own personal journey. I just assumed that you were a super focused overachiever. Um, but <laugh>, you could correct me
Mariam 01:22:13 <laugh>. Sure, yeah. That’s, that’s a, a fair assumption. I think probably many people would assume that, and certainly in school, that’s how I appeared to be, you know, I was, um, a very focused student. Uh, probably took school a little too seriously. I could have maybe relaxed a little bit more, but, um, I, um, I was very focused on trying to do well. Um, I remember going into college and being told, you know, um, you should expect your grades to drop by 15 percentage points. You’re
Paul 01:22:49 Like, screw that, and
Mariam 01:22:49 That’s not gonna happen. I found that terrifying <laugh>, you know, and my, my first chemistry exam, the class average was something like 56% mm-hmm. <affirmative>, uh, and I was terrified, you know, I just was, um, set on trying to do well in, in school for my future career. And, um, you know, that led to a lot of anxiety. It led to a lot of, um, mental health problems that took various forms. And it was something that I struggled with, um, throughout undergrad, and that got particularly worse in, in graduate school. Um, so I, I did struggle quite a bit with my mental health during those times. Um, tried to maybe focus a little bit too much on school, which, um, was meant to kind of reduce my anxiety about doing poorly, but I just meant to, oh, actually ended up increasing anxiety and stress because I didn’t have other parts of my life to enjoy. You know, you didn’t have, I didn’t have that social support group, for example, because I had focused so narrowly on work that I had excluded friends and family and were just kind of, um, spiraling into a bad mental space. Um,
Paul 01:24:02 Was that, was that an in, is that an intrinsic property of your personality, or was there, you know, were you, do you have like external influences that like pressure, and I’m not pointing, I don’t mean to like point fingers of blame, you know, to your parents, but I, I, I know a lot of people are, you know, heavily, uh, guided and motivated by their parents’ expectations and society’s expectations. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>,
Mariam 01:24:26 Sure. I certainly had pressures coming from various sources, but when I started getting really mentally sick, I had a lot of support from my family who was extremely alarmed, <laugh> to see the trajectory I was going down on. Um, I had a lot of support from my undergraduate advisors and people who saw me and cared about me, but I think I was too far gone to, um, it’s like, thanks, you know, I’m fine. Was my, was my reaction.
Paul 01:24:54 What, and just, you know, cut me off if something gets too personal. But what, like, how did, presumably you were making good grades because you were putting all this pressure on yourself and, uh, sort of laser focused in, in that regard. So was it your, was your health just deteriorating or you, you know, was it like an ex some sort of external manifestation that, that people could even notice? Or is it, did you just seem too focused? Or how, how did people even notice?
Mariam 01:25:19 My physical health was extremely poor. Um, I, I’d lost a lot of weight. Um, I developed some, uh, disordered eating. I was ex extremely unhealthy looking. I was very physically weak by the time it got really bad. So, um, that led eventually to me being hospitalized in graduate school because I was extremely close to death. Um, so physically, you know, my my,
Paul 01:25:47 I’m sorry. Did you resist that, uh, being hospitalized? Like how, how difficult was that? And I’m sorry, I interrupted. I I just off the top of my head.
Mariam 01:25:56 No, no worries. Um, I kind did and I didn’t. So by the time that, uh, the university reached out to me and told me that I needed to seek care or be kicked out of the program, um, mm-hmm. <affirmative>, by that time it’s been, it was so many years of living that way. Um, I was ex, I was extremely weak. I was, you know, at the point where I could had trouble physically walking. Um, my, my heart was damaged. Um, I, I looked like I was, you know, about to die. Um, and I had a lot of trouble just doing day-to-day activities. So because of that, um, I kind of knew I needed help, that if I didn’t get it, I would probably die. Um, so part of it was me, like resisting in the sense that I just wanted to continue my life the way it was, but part of me realized that my life would not continue. Hmm. Um, so when I got the message from the university that, you know, concerned, people had told them that I should seek medical care, and if I did not, I would be kicked out. Um, my first reaction was fear and, um, just like, how can I get out of this? Mm-hmm. You know, how can I continue the way that I am?
Paul 01:27:19 Totally. That would be me. Yeah.
Mariam 01:27:21 And then when I, yeah, it’s just this bizarre thought process that doesn’t make sense to anybody except yourself when you’re, when you’re in it. Um, and then part of me was relieved that maybe this would be over. Um, I just knew that I couldn’t continue the way that I was because of my, I just, I couldn’t like walk <laugh>, you know, it, it’s like, um, you know, I’d had a fall and I wasn’t able to get up. So,
Paul 01:27:49 Wow.
Mariam 01:27:50 Um,
Paul 01:27:50 From dizziness or lack of strength, or all of the above, or
Mariam 01:27:54 Lack of strength. I was walking home. I didn’t have any strength. I fell in a field. Um, I yelled for help and a lot of people walked by and one person stopped and carried me home. Mm. So that was a low point. Um, and, uh, I knew something had to, had to change, so I was relieved, um, maybe as much as I was, you know, sad and scared. Um, so I ended up going to the, the hospital where I was hospitalized for, um, six weeks, part of that on a, uh, cardiac ward, because my heart, um, was in, so when you’re, when you’re starving, your, your body tries to use whatever energy source it needs. Um,
Paul 01:28:46 And that means harder work on the heart because it’s, uh, you’re, you’re, it’s pumping blood, asking for more nutrients or something. I, I don’t, sorry, I’m ignorant.
Mariam 01:28:55 I think your body tries to digest whatever. I see sources of energy it has left. I see. Including the heart. Yeah. Okay. So I was, I was actually very close to death. Um,
Paul 01:29:04 So did, were, were you like on an IV and, sorry.
Mariam 01:29:08 Oh, yeah, yeah. Oh, I was on everything <laugh>. I was, uh, yeah, I, my body just was, um, nowhere near where it needed to be. I was on all kinds of IVs. My electrolytes were just horribly imbalanced. My, I had liver problems, I had heart problems, I had, um, osteoporosis, I had everything that you could think of. I was, you know, 21,
Paul 01:29:32 Um, should be in great
Mariam 01:29:34 Health. So I, I was, yeah. Um, but yeah, I, I had to, I was under careful care for a long time because I, I was quite close to death. Um, you know, I remember that, um, my heart rate was really high, so my resting heart rate was, I dunno, maybe one 20. Whoa. And I’d brushed my teeth in the morning, and when I’d get up to brush my teeth, my heart rate will go up to 1 60, 180. The alarms would go off, the nurses would come running in mm-hmm. <affirmative> to see if I’m okay. And I’m just standing there brushing my teeth, you know. So, um, there was a lot of recovery that, that had to occur over, over those six weeks.
Paul 01:30:17 And, and so it was six, six weeks and then you, did you go immediately back to graduate school? How, how’s that process getting back in to graduate school and, and the flow of things and, and just moving forward?
Mariam 01:30:30 So, probably wouldn’t surprise people to know that I was analyzing data while I was in the hospital course. And that sounds terrible, but I, I needed something have, so, yeah. Um, and I, I did a lot of reading. I read novels. Um, I tried to, you know, relax as much as I could, but I also needed to forget my situation sometimes. And I love frames and memory and data, and it wasn’t that I felt pressured, it was that I needed to, to do something. Um, but I did take a good chunk of time. I was away not just the rest of the quarter, but also a good chunk of the summer. Um, did a lot of time to try to build hobbies and find my friend groups and so on. Um, and then was was back, um, this happened about in April, and so I was back in, in graduate school at the end of September.
Paul 01:31:28 And this, you know, your personal experiences must have, um, had a lasting effect and continuing effect on how you run your lab and probably your sensitivity to students’ needs, I would imagine. Uh, would you say that, I mean, stupid question, but has that had a large effect on, uh, just, you know, how you run your lab and how you take care of your, of your own self these days? And, and the memory for that and mindfulness of, of that? Is that a constant sort of, um, inner, uh, reflection?
Mariam 01:32:03 Yeah, I, that experience was, um, so awful <laugh> for me, as, as you’d imagine it was, um, not just the hospital, but everything before that. The memory of that, you know, for some people it sounds like, oh, that was, you know, more than 10 years ago, it’s old, you’re probably fine now, but Right. That doesn’t go away. Right. So that, um, the unpleasantness of those experiences is something that, um, is still very difficult for me to talk about, and, uh, is a good reminder for me to never go back to that place again. Um, so as negative as those memories are, they are a very powerful deterrent forever returning to that place. And I’m a lot better now at, um, leaning on my partner and my family and my social support group so that I don’t return to that place. Um, and I, I hope that has made me a better mentor and more, um, aware of people’s needs and the importance of mental health and self-care. Um, I’m very open in talking about it, and I, I try to be supportive of people. Um, I’ve had some moments that I’m not proud of, especially when I was early in my, um, assistant professor career where there’s so much
Paul 01:33:27 Pressure Oh, so much to produce. Yeah. I mean, I, I remember seeing people like running, you know, new faculty members sweating and running through the hallway to there. It just seems so, so high pressured. And so that has like, gotta be the worst situation for, uh, someone who’s gone through something. Like, you have to, to be and let you know, let me throw myself into this even harder, more pressure situation.
Mariam 01:33:50 Yeah. And I think what I’m not proud of is that I let the pressure that I feel kinda leak over to my trainees, where in hindsight, I should have been easier on them. I should have given more time and less pressure. Um, and I, that’s, that’s one of my, my biggest regrets is I think that, um, the pressure to produce should have been something that was on me and contained enough that I didn’t, um, that I respected my trainees needs for mental health time a little bit more. I’m better at it now, both because I realized that my past self, um, was maybe putting a little bit too much pressure on my trainees. And also because of further you go in your career, the more you kind of like, let up, you know, it’s like, okay, I got that paper out, you know, I got that grant. Maybe I kinda lacked a little bit
Paul 01:34:47 More. You kinda see that, um, over the long haul. It’s, uh, it’s a marathon, not a sprint or something. Is that the, but how do, do you get around feeling like it’s a, it is a sprint in the beginning though, right?
Mariam 01:35:03 It kinda is. Um, I, those first few years, I think there’s just so much pressure to write all the grants, write all the papers, like get the data from your labs, just get going. Um, and I just don’t know how to take away some of that pressure.
Paul 01:35:23 How’s the tenure going? Are you tenure tracked yet?
Mariam 01:35:27 Uh, I’m not tenured yet. Okay. Um, so that’s coming up in the, the next couple of years. Um, I’m at the point where, you know, I, I know I’m, I’ve been trying my best, um, and that if that’s not good enough, then I’ve at least give it, gave it all I got, and I’m not willing to, to give any more than I have. So hopefully it’s enough,
Paul 01:35:51 You know, uh, we talked about you not knowing what psychology was early on, and of course, I didn’t know what neuroscience was early on. And I’m pretty sure when I got into graduate school, I didn’t know what tenure was. So, so I was like so naive, uh, about academia, and I suppose I still am
Mariam 01:36:08 <laugh>. I I am too. I I didn’t really understand the difference between assistant, associate and full.
Paul 01:36:15 I still don’t until I started
Mariam 01:36:16 Don’t
Paul 01:36:17 My
Mariam 01:36:17 Faculty job.
Paul 01:36:18 That’s you go. Yeah.
Mariam 01:36:21 Yeah. It’s, I have a lot of learning to do as well. There’s a lot about academia that I didn’t understand.
Paul 01:36:27 Yeah. I, I, um, you know, I, I wish I had something, uh, more comforting, more profound to say, um, I really appreciate you sharing your personal experience. This is not something that we usually talk about, um, or go into that much, uh, depth on the podcast. So I really, uh, appreciate that. I’m sure it’s probably becoming more easy to talk about, but I’m sure still difficult to talk about. Um, and, uh, you know, I don’t know if congratulations is the right word, but I’m just happy that you’re, uh, moving, continuing to move in the right direction. Uh, I hope, and, uh, I’m glad that you came out of it and, and you know, sorry that you had to go through that.
Mariam 01:37:05 Yeah. I, I hope just by talking about it, that it’ll help other people who might be in similar situations and maybe prevent people from living what I had to live through. Um, so, you know, it’s, it’s not something that’s easy for me to talk about. There’s a lot of details and I’m not sharing, but hopefully, um, and at least providing this part of my story, I can try to help others
Paul 01:37:31 Ev even knowing probably that, um, that there are experiences like yours, someone who may be suffering through a similar experience, even that has gotta be a, just a shining light of hope, I would imagine.
Mariam 01:37:45 So when I first shared this story, I, um, like you mentioned, I wrote about it briefly, stories in science and the outpouring of support and things I got was, um, it was very touching. Um, and it felt like maybe one of the most important things that I’d ever done. So, um, you know, I, I’ve come to think that, you know, my research is fine, and some people like it, some people probably don’t <laugh>, but I think I’ll probably have a bigger impact in other areas. Um, and I think one of those is trying to be more open about mental health struggles. And the fact that many people experience them, they’re nothing to be ashamed of. It’s not something you can think yourself out of, um, that when you’re in it, it’s very difficult to, to get out. Um, and I think it’s not, you know, one person out of a hundred. It’s a lot of people, you know, in, in a, in a group of 10, probably what half might have had some mental health struggles. Um, so I do think it’s important to talk about these things and, um, I received a lot of support for sharing some of my story and a lot of people, um, I hope were helped by it and will continue to be helped by it.
Paul 01:39:03 Well, I appreciate you being so open about it, so thanks. All right, Mary, my, I’ve taken you long enough. I really appreciate you, um, sharing so much of your personal story, uh, with me. But then also, um, congratulations and continued success, uh, on the science story as well. And, um, uh, uh, I feel very optimistic for your future, uh, science path because there seem to be many open questions to continue to tackle.
Mariam 01:39:28 Thanks so much. It was a real pleasure. And thank you for giving me the chance to not just talk about science, but also talk about mental health.
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