Junior Faculty Spotlight

UO psychology professor Brice Kuhl wants to know how we remember and why we forget

As an undergraduate student at Kenyon College, Brice Kuhl based his honors thesis on the cognitive psychology research in memory of then-UO professor Michael C. Anderson. The year Kuhl graduated he spotted a job posting for Anderson’s lab and jumped at the opportunity. He relocated to Oregon and worked in the lab for two years before heading off to graduate school at Stanford University.

After completing his postdoc, Kuhl was hired as an assistant professor at New York University but he had sights set on returning to Oregon. That opportunity opened up for Kuhl last year and he joined the UO Department of Psychology in fall 2015.

Kuhl has been interested in how memory works long before he started studying it. A self-described “memory geek,” Kuhl entertained himself in high school by trying to see how fast he could memorize the order of a deck of cards. “I would continually memorize license plates and phone numbers,” Kuhl said. “As an undergrad, I took a course in memory but I never considered the field seriously until my junior year of college.”

Today Kuhl still works on the memory research he started with his undergraduate thesis. Focusing on the formation of memories, he is trying to answer questions such as how we keep memories separate from other memories, why we forget and how we avoid forgetting.

We had a chance to talk with Kuhl about his research, relocating to Oregon and his thoughts on working in the Lewis Integrative Science Building.

How long have you been at the UO? What were you doing before you arrived here?

Prior to coming to Oregon, I was on the faculty at NYU for three years. I relocated my lab to the University of Oregon at the end of July.

Why were you drawn to Oregon and the University of Oregon?

I loved my early experience in Oregon and I always wanted to come back. In New York, I found myself looking for a better quality of life outside of work. I think the quality of life in Oregon is pretty phenomenal. I got into Eugene’s running culture the first time I lived here. I love the mountains around here and I really enjoy hiking and running in Eugene.

What are your early impressions of the UO?

My lab is located in the Lewis Integrative Science Building which houses an MRI facility. I think the collaborative environment of the Lewis Building is great for stimulating and fostering research. I have regular meetings with psychology and biology researchers.

You’re still doing research into memory - what exactly is your area of expertise?

Using neuroimaging tools such as the fMRI, I am trying to measure and record how memories are formed and how they are stored in the brain. I look at patterns of brain activity and how memories are related to each other. Experiences that are very similar to each other cause memories to be forgotten. If you park your car in a parking garage and every day you park it in a different spot, it’s easy to forget where you parked your car because these experiences of parking your car are all very similar to each other. Looking at how the brain forms memories can help to minimize that kind of forgetting.

If you think about two people who look similar, you may mix them up early on but as you get to know them more the memories become separate. The critical piece in our research is to be able to link neural measurements of memory to behavior. We’ve been able to do that now in our research by measuring how memories change with learning. Experiences that are similar start out with similar neural activity patterns. But the neural activity patterns pull apart as you learn and have more experiences.

To do our research, we might have people learn routes from point A to point B, or give them a simple task in which they study pictures that look very similar. We record patterns of neural activity and quantify the neural overlap of similar memories. How does the overlap of neural activity patterns relate to the confusability of these events in memory? How and when does the brain differentiate similar events? These questions are the focus of our research.

You received a large award from the National Institutes of Health not long after you arrived at the UO. Is this the focus of your current research? Can you talk a little bit about this research and award?

I received the NIH award for my current research related to memory overlap and forgetting. Many of the projects we are starting at Oregon now are related to this grant. I am also working to get additional grants to fund other areas of interest in memory research with the goal of better understanding how different brain regions coordinate to help people remember.