Ogi Ogas in Seed Magazine:
Boston University’s doctoral program in cognitive neuroscience prepares students for a career in brain modeling, robot design, or biomedical engineering—or for winning cash on the television quiz show Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?. Researchers in my department, Cognitive and Neural Systems (CNS), seek to understand the brain’s mechanisms, including three cognitive systems that happen to be essential for a profitable performance on Millionaire: learning, memory, and decision-making. This summer—the start of my final year in the CNS Ph.D. program—I decided to apply my graduate skills to a decidedly practical purpose and auditioned for a turn in the show’s perilous hot seat.
I went to New York, where I passed a multiple-choice audition test. Two weeks later, I received the call to appear on the syndicated version of Millionaire, hosted by the empathic and playful Meredith Vieira. To prepare, I focused first on memory techniques, the subject of my doctoral dissertation.
The first technique I drew upon was priming. The priming of a memory occurs because of the peculiar “connectionist” neural dynamics of our cortex, where memories are distributed across many regions and neurons. If we can recall any fragment of a pattern, our brains tend to automatically fill in the rest. For example, hearing an old Madonna song may launch a cascade of linked memories: your high school prom where it was the theme song, your poorly tailored prom outfit, your forgotten prom date, the stinging embarrassment when you threw up in the limo.