The movie Coco won the best-animated film at Oscars 2018 lately and was rated very high on IMDB. I watched the movie last week with my friends and we all burst into tears during several scenes.

The film tells a story about a boy named Miguel who wanted to be a musician. However, his whole family objected this dream. Fortuitously, he met his great-great-grandfather, a very talented musician, in the land of the dead. However, his great-great-grandfather was in danger of disappearing from the land of the dead because the only person who remembered him, his daughter, Coco, was growing old and was gradually losing her memory. If the people in the land of dead are forgotten by those in the living world, they will disappear completely. After a series of adventures, Miguel finally helped Coco remember her father and he won his family’s support as well.

Besides the covering the topics of dreams and family, the movie reveals an important idea about memory: ‘memory defines who we are to some extent’. The people in the land of the dead only exist because they live in other people’s memories. In psychological research, memory relating to past personal experiences and autobiographical events is called episodic memory. There is no doubt that episodic memory is the base for us to form identities and to connect with others.

What if someone could not form memories? In the history of research on memory, there is one patient, H.M., who suffered from the inability to form new long-term memories after he underwent a surgical procedure to remove part of his bilateral temporal lobes. In a time when scientists knew little about the neural substrate of memory, H.M. became the best research subject. It is now known that the parts removed from H.M.’s brain was his posterior hippocampus (Corkin, Amaral, González, Johnson, & Hyman, 1997). The hippocampus is located in the medial temporal cortex, and is particularly important in the formation of long-term memory. More importantly, the hippocampus is where the information of items and contexts bound together, which makes it a necessary brain region for episodic memory (Ranganath, 2010).

However, even if we successfully form long-term memory on some events, we may not be able to retrieve them easily. The point is shown clearly in the movie when Coco could not remember her father no matter how Miguel asked her to do so. This may be attributed to the fact that the hippocampus and other related brain areas may atrophy during the aging process. Another reason may lie in the choice of appropriate cues in the retrieval process. The climax of the movie happens when Miguel sang her great-grandmother the same song her father had sung to her a lot of years ago, and Miguel even used the same guitar that her father once played. Research has found the phenomenon of encoding specificity, which suggests the cue will facilitate recall only if its relationship with the target item was processed at encoding (Tulving & Osler, 1968). Though most of her memory was gone, Coco could still remember the scene where her father sang to her. According to the theory of encoding specificity, the specific memory could be more easily recalled by putting Coco into a similar context, which is exactly what Miguel did.

More research has found that not only the medial temporal cortex, but also the prefrontal cortex and parietal cortex, all play important roles in memory encoding and retrieval processes (Nyberg, Cabeza, & Tulving, 1996; Wagner, Shannon, Kahn, & Buckner, 2005). Different regions of our brains work in complex coordination to keep us as humans who have stories. Therefore, value your memories as they create invisible identities and find some time to watch the movie. I will end with the theme song ‘remember me’ of this great movie:

Remember me

For I will soon be gone

Remember me

And let the love we have live on

And know that I’m with you the only way that I can be

So, until you’re in my arms again

Remember me

This reivew was written by Xueqi Bao and edited by Emma Keoy. Both of them are members of the Bugle Team.

References:

Corkin, S., Amaral, D. G., González, R. G., Johnson, K. A., & Hyman, B. T. (1997). HM’s medial temporal lobe lesion: findings from magnetic resonance imaging. Journal of Neuroscience, 17(10), 3964-3979.

Nyberg, L., Cabeza, R., & Tulving, E. (1996). PET studies of encoding and retrieval: The HERA model. Psychonomic bulletin & review, 3(2), 135-148.

Ranganath, C. (2010). Binding items and contexts: The cognitive neuroscience of episodic memory. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 19(3), 131-137.

Tulving, E., & Osler, S. (1968). Effectiveness of retrieval cues in memory for words. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 77(4), 593.

Wagner, A. D., Shannon, B. J., Kahn, I., & Buckner, R. L. (2005). Parietal lobe contributions to episodic memory retrieval. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 9(9), 445-453.

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