Newark boasts a large – and growing – tech force. Brainwalk, an occasional series, will introduce you to some of its rising stars.
After years of study, Megan Speer was looking for ways to conduct her own scientific investigation into a topic that intrigues her like no other: Memory. She possessed the energy, the curiosity, and the tenacity. She knew she was ready.
On her first day working as a lab manager for Mauricio Delgado, a renowned brain researcher at Rutgers University—Newark, Speer took a chance.
“What’s going to be my first project?” Speer said to her boss, whose work investigating the brain mechanisms involved in reward and punishment has earned him major accolades, including being named a Presidential Early Career awardee. Delgado instantly pitched her an idea. Why not look at how memories may serve as rewards?
Since that moment in 2013, the 32-year-old graduate student who is close to earning her doctoral degree in psychology, has been off and running. As first author, Speer has already published papers in two leading scientific journals – Nature Human Behaviour in April 2017 and, before that, Neuron in November 2014.
In the Neuron paper, Speer, working with her mentor, Delgado, and Rutgers scientist Jamil Bhanji, showed that reminders of happy memories can bring back pleasant feelings tied to the original experience and suggested there may be some therapeutic value in employing this recall. More recently, as outlined in their Nature HB paper, Speer and Delgado have shown that the act of reminiscing about positive memories reduces stress.
“The general idea is that in everyday life we naturally think about things that have happened to us,” said Speer, sitting in a complex of rooms in Rutgers’ Social and Affective Neuroscience Lab on the Rutgers-Newark campus in University Heights. “We may think of negative things, but we think of positive things, too. And we do it pretty frequently. The question is: Can we use these positive memories as a way to regulate our mood?”
From her seat in the lab, Speer is a long way from Raleigh, North Carolina, where she grew up. But her father worked as an engineer in the area’s high-tech Research Triangle Park, so living and working in a busy cosmopolitan area in days steeped in research, she said, is second nature to her. “Science was very incorporated in our lives,” Speer said.
Speer attributes her lifelong love of math and science to her late father, who spoke frequently about scientific advances and would include his family in trips to wide-open spaces in order to practice his hobby of rocketry. Speer majored in chemistry at the University of North Carolina but realized as she grew closer to graduation that she enjoyed her psychology classes the most.
She decided to pursue a master’s degree in experimental psychology at the University of Massachusetts to get a taste of research. It was the right decision. The lab focused on memory and employed techniques using electroencephalograms (EEGs) which detect electrical impulses from the brain.
“I liked it but it wasn’t exactly the right topic,” Speer said. “But it basically let me know whether I liked research or not. I really loved doing it, coming up with the questions, as well as the data analysis.”
With solid experience in psychology research, Speer was able to secure a position in Delgado’s lab. “It ended up being great because he had always done a little bit of memory work in his focus on rewards,” Speer said.
She read Daniel Gilbert’s book, “Stumbling on Happiness,” and it changed her life. The New York Times bestseller, published in 2006, describes what researchers in psychology, cognitive neuroscience, philosophy, and behavioral economics are learning about how humans imagine the future and their place in it.
“I started getting interested in emotion, happiness, tied to memory,” she said. She realized that not a lot was known about what happiness looks like in the brain.
To start, she conducted a proof-of-concept study to see if she was on the right track.
Following the strict protocols the university mandates for experiments, Speer invited people in to the lab to work as research subjects and asked them to reminisce about one of their positive memories. Subjects were placed in functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machines and given cues to prod their memories. Speer spurred their imaginations with key phrases such as “going to the movies,” or “going on vacation,” or “graduation.”
As the research subjects conjured memories for a 14-second span, the fMRI, which measures brain activity, recorded images mapping their brain activity. The technique rests on the notion that the brain’s blood flow is tightly coupled with brain cell excitement.
The researchers discovered that the subjects’ ventral striatum – the brain’s reward center -- “lit up,” meaning that it was activated or engaged in thinking when the subjects had happy thoughts. Scientists have seen this area energized when people receive money or gain access to abstract rewards, like pleasant music.
“And we found that you also see the ventral striatum involved when a person thinks of positive experiences,” Speer said.
The next step was conducting a behavioral study to see how valuable positive memories are to people and whether they would be willing to give up another reward for the opportunity to experience them. The scientists set it up so that people had to make a choice between a positive memory and a neutral memory and the decision was paired with a financial reward.
Participants faced a computer screen and were asked to pick between a positive memory image, such as playing in the snow or a more neutral one, like going to the grocery store.
Each choice had a monetary value. Most of the time, the neutral memory had a higher financial reward than the more enjoyable alternative. The researchers found that people are more likely to choose the positive memory, even when it is not worth more. “This gave us the sense that people really found positive memories more valuable than other rewards,” she said.
Finding a physical manifestation of a memory can be elusive.
“We used to think that our memories were mostly located in the hippocampus, which is regarded as the place of memory storage and retrieval,” Speer said. “But what researchers have found is that, if you wanted to think of what a host of memories looks like in the brain, it would look more like a web than a spot.”
The entire brain lights up when memories are conjured, forming a wispy net that winds and turns through different regions.
Following that work, Speer explored whether, if memories are valuable to us and if evoking them involves the reward center of the brain, can happy memories by employed to combat stress? She is finding that the answer is a resounding yes.
In experiments with people, Speer found that if you stress a person out (by placing their hand in ice water for two minutes) and then you have them recall happy memories after for a period of about 15 minutes, they do not experience any rise in stress hormones.
Speer is expanding the query, looking to see how those experiencing depression can be helped by happy memories.
“It’s very exciting,” Speer said. “A memory is something we have in everyday life. If we can leverage that to address stress and wellbeing, that would be wonderful.”
Kitta MacPherson is an award-winning science writer who previously worked for The Star-Ledger. She teaches journalism at St. Benedicts Prep.