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A complete stranger is now someone I would recognize at Wegman's

“Wait, how do I…I know that guy….Adam!” It’s process of recognition and context retrieval that Adam Broitman studies. He used the hypothetical example of us running into each other at Wegman’s to help me understand the difference between familiarity, remembering a face and recollection, retrieving the context of how you know the person.

Adam is a Cornell graduate student in psychology who works out of the AMP Lab. He took some time to meet me at Gimme Coffee on campus.

Adam directs his research towards uncovering relationships between and among the three factors of psychology for which AMP is short; attention, memory, and perception. Rewind to a few days earlier when I originally reached out to Adam.

I was thinking to myself, “I know I’m going to have do some research“ [for a future episode of the Living is Learning Podcast which will explore why we do the things we do] and I’m still going to do my own research, but why not go straight to the source, and speak with someone who is active in the field of psychology.

I scanned Cornell’s Department Of Psychology Graduate Student Directory. After a moment of scrolling and reading profiles, there I found Adam. I sent him an email asking if he’d let me pick his brain and he complied. We arranged to meet up and after it was all said and done, I’m really happy I reached out.

He explained that you really can’t study one of those factors, attention, memory, and perception without studying the others. Passionate about his research; Adam spoke during our sit-down with bravado, noticeably perking up when I started asking questions, gesturing down toward his bag which contained his laptop, saying “I have some slides I could show you.” His voice seemed to fill the room, bouncing off the glass and metal walls of Gates Hall, named after yes, the Gates you are thinking of.

The profundity of this is only now fully registering with me as I attempt to retrieve the context of Adam and mine’s meeting, which took place in a space built to foster collaborative ties among students and faculty. And unless Bill and Melinda Gate’s are secretly jerks despite having donated $36 Billion dollars to healthcare, education, and ending poverty, I would presume they would extend the spirit of collaboration to the Ithaca public as well. If Adam’s receptivity to me is any indication of a larger institutional culture, then I would say the spirit of collaboration is alive and well at Cornell University.

I applaud Adam for his genuineness in attempting to communicate complex scientific findings to someone like me, a lay member of the Ithaca community, which is no short order considering his level of his expertise. Outreach is something that Adam is a proponent off. I think that’s why he was not only happy to partake in the meeting with me, but supportive of outreach in general.

We began our conversation by discussing the necessity of reaching out to and communicating with the general public, because after all, the taxpayer pays for some of Adam’s research, which is partly funded by government grants. We ended our conversation by agreeing that it’s important to start early with education. I now understand why I am easily able to recall what we talked about at the beginning and end of the conversation, but have more difficulty remembering what happened in the middle. It’s because of something called event boundaries, which are quick changes in context that facilitate a change in the brain state. This is why information presented at the beginning or end of a learning episode tends to be retained better than information presented in the middle.

Between the bookends, we talked about the malleability of memory, long term and short term memory, and false memory. I remember being fascinated to learn about the fate of Henry Gustav Molaison. He was a man who suffered from seizures and had a large part of his brain removed, including the entire Hippocampus. In vacuum cleaner like fashion, a Connecticut neurosurgeon named Dr. Scoville, just slurped it out of there.

The outcome, which was unfortunate for Mr. Molaison, led to breakthroughs in our understanding of the brain. I won’t tell you the whole story, but I encourage you to look it up yourself. Or better yet ask a psychology student about it!

The takeaway of our meeting is this: if you’re ever curious about something, don’t be afraid to reach out to someone who knows more than you do on the subject. Most of the time you’ll get an enthusiastic yes to your inquiry. You’ll gain insights you never could have gotten on your own.

What’s the worst that can happen, no reply? When I sent Adam an email on Sunday explaining “I'd love to schedule a time to sit down with you,” I wasn’t sure if I’d ever hear back.

And now, well this amazing experience is a part of my long term memory! Unless I have part of my brain removed. Thanks Adam! I hope to recognize you at Wegman’s some day.