Felipe De Brigard: The purpose of memory and imagination

Felipe De Brigard is brining neuroscience research tools to the study of philosophy. Photo by Jared Lazarus/Duke University Photography
Felipe De Brigard is brining neuroscience research tools to the study of philosophy. Photo by Jared Lazarus/Duke University Photography

Our minds constantly rehearse life events and episodes -- an argument with a loved one or a mistake made at work or school.

We wonder what we could have said or done differently, and whether that might have changed the outcome. We also think about the future, playing out various hypothetical situations that are likely, or sometimes unlikely, to occur.

Assistant professor of philosophy Felipe De Brigard aims to understand why we do this sort of thinking and how it affects us.

In his new Imagination and Modal Cognition Lab at Duke, De Brigard uses the tools of philosophy, psychology and cognitive neuroscience to study the many ways in which memory and imagination interact.

De Brigard’s foothold in neuroscience comes, in part, from the relatively recent observation that we need the same brain regions to both reflect on our own past and imagine future scenarios.

Indeed, research has shown that people with amnesia have a severely limited imagination about what could happen to them, said De Brigard, a member of the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences and the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience.

This observation extends to our reflections on the past, according to De Brigard’s work -- part of which he did as a postdoc in Daniel Schacter’s lab at Harvard University. 

De Brigard believes that our considerations of what actually happened, what could have happened and what might happen are closely linked in our brains because these kinds of mental simulations are likely to allow us to rehearse ways the world could be. He think's it's a hedge against future uncertainty. 

He maintains that memory is not primarily for remembering, but is rather part of a larger system for playing out hypotheticals. Every time you retrieve a memory it becomes subject to distortion. Research by De Brigard and others suggests this lack of fidelity serves some purpose in affecting the way you think about your future.

Many philosophers, and a handful of neuroscientists, are skeptical that their two fields can bolster one another, De Brigard said.

Philosophers in particular seem resistant to the idea of applying scientific methods and tools, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging, to questions they deem traditionally philosophical, he said.

“A lot of philosophers are not convinced that what I do is really philosophy,” De Brigard said, adding that it feels risky to ask such unconventional research questions.

“At this time and age, I see no better way to advance knowledge than to work at the intersection of research disciplines, and I cannot think of a university that is better positioned to do so than Duke,” said De Brigard, who arrived at Duke in July 2013.

In May 2016, De Brigard and Duke philosopher/neuroscientist Walter Sinnott-Armstrong will be convening the first of a three-year series of 15-day seminars called SSNAP -- Summer Seminars in Neuroscience and Philosophy -- to put the two parties in close contact and see what comes out. 

Supported by a $1.8 million grant from the Templeton Foundation, the program will bring 10 philosophers to Duke to study neuroscience alongside 10 neuroscientists brought here to study philosophy. The scholars will conduct a two-day public symposium together and design some experiments "on big questions" that might be pursued with Templeton support. 

Born and raised in Bogotá, Colombia, De Brigard, 35, was always interested in the brain and philosophy. After what amounted to a stroke of luck -- early dismissal from required military service in Colombia -- he had a year to explore these interests in earnest. At the National University of Colombia, he loaded his schedule with classes in psychology, neuroscience and philosophy.

One of them was Patricia Montañés’ class on clinical and cognitive neuropsychology. It was off limits to underclassmen, but after convincing Montañés, De Brigard took the course and earned the highest grade.

After the conclusion of the course, Montañés asked him how he did it. De Brigard showed her his notes, a combination of lecture notes and additional research. The two then worked together to make his notes into a textbook.

Published in 2001 (then re-issued in 2005 and updated in 2011), their “Neuropsicología Clínica y Cognoscitiva” has been the main textbook for clinical and cognitive neuropsychology in Colombia since.

After earning a master’s degree working with the renowned philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, De Brigard came to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. There, he worked as a graduate student in philosophy with Jesse Prinz and with Kelly Giovanello as a graduate student in psychology and cognitive neuroscience.

Some of De Brigard’s work at UNC challenged the conclusions of a well-known thought experiment called the "experience machine," which found that people tend to choose reality over the experience of rock stardom, even if real life is gloomier.

De Brigard inverted the experiment, telling participants that their current lives were part of an "experience machine" and they would be offered the chance to return to reality. They didn’t. They preferred to live in their current lives even after learning it was fantasy, because, De Brigard reasoned, it was the status quo. 

De Brigard lives in Chapel Hill with his wife, their 3-year-old son, and their dog.