Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour
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Thesis defense Marlieke van Kesteren (Donders Series 111)

21 March 2013

Promotors: Prof. dr. G. Fernández, Prof.dr. D.J. Ruiter

Copromotors: Dr. M. Rijpkema, Dr. E.J. Hermans

Schemas in the brain:  Influences of prior knowledge on learning, memory, and education

Prior knowledge, represented by interconnected networks or schemas in the brain, is known to enhance learning of new information that is related to this schema. Generally, new information is better remembered when it is consistent with a schema as compared to when it is less consistent. The neural mechanisms underlying this effect are however still largely unknown. Therefore, this thesis investigated the schema effect on memory in humans using behavioural memory tasks along with functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) techniques, that allow to examine the neural mechanisms underlying the schema effect. Findings point towards two different competing mechanisms in the brain that are mediated by two brain regions, the medial temporal lobe (MTL) and the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) and are suggested to store memories in different ways as a function of their congruency with a pre-existing schema. In particular, new information that is consistent with a schema is thought to be assimilated with this schema by the mPFC, while new information that is inconsistent with a schema is rather stored as a separate memory by the MTL. The interplay between these regions, mediated by congruency with a pre-existing schema, is thus found to be crucial for memory formation. Moreover, an experiment investigating relationships of this effect to education showed that activity patterns in the mPFC were related to future academic performance. These findings provide first insight into why there is an enhancement of schemas on memory and how this is represented in the brain, and are furthermore crucial for practical applications in educational programs, such as curriculum design and meaningful learning.