The formation of social memories

Is there a specific memory for events involving people? Researchers in the Vulnerability, Adaptation and Psychopathology Laboratory (CNRS/University Paris VI France ) and a Canadian team at Douglas Hospital, McGill University (Montreal), have identified the internal part of the prefrontal cortex as being the key structure for memorising social information. Published in Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, February 2007.

Social events such as a party with friends, a work meeting or an argument with a partner form an integral part of daily life. Our ability to remember these events, and more precisely to remember the people and the relationships we had with them, is essential to ensure satisfactory adaptation to our social existence. At a cerebral level, various regions of the brain, and particularly the hippocampus, are directly involved in learning and memory. Some of these regions are specialised in learning certain types of information, such as the amygdale and our memory for emotions.

The Canadian and French teams (the latter led by Philippe Fossati ) have recently identified a precise region in the frontal cortex which may be specialised in recording and learning social information. Using a functional magnetic resonance imaging technique, the scientists measured cerebral activity in 17 volunteers while they accomplished a memory task involving pictures of social scenes (interacting individuals) and non-social scenes (landscapes with no people). They thus identified the internal part of the prefrontal cortex, called the medial prefrontal cortex, as being the key structure in memorising social information from a picture.

Previous studies performed by the same research teams had associated this prefrontal region with thinking processes about self and others. Their work suggested that in addition to emotions, the analysis of specifically human information could facilitate learning and memorisation, involving cerebral structures specialised in analysing mental states and empathy. This work opens important perspectives regarding our understanding of the mechanisms of human recollections and mental disorders (schizophrenia, autism) which affect social and relational skills.


Modulation of memory formation by stimulus content: specific role of the medial prefrontal cortex in the successful encoding of social pictures, Harvey, P.O., Fossati, P., Lepage, M. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, February 2007