What We Remember

Adam Brown (psychology) researches the neurological effects of PTSD in veterans.

by Katharine Reece MFA '12

Adam Brown

Imagine your life three months from now, or even three years. Perhaps you envision a shift in your career, a deepening romance, or a reunion with an old friend. Or maybe you can’t imagine the future yielding anything positive at all. According to Adam Brown (psychology), our capacity to imagine the future depends largely on how we recall our past. Brown’s research focuses on how people with clinical disorders understand the relationship between the past and the future, and he believes the neuroscience behind their memories can help them heal.

Brown’s research focuses largely on veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Shortly after arriving at Sarah Lawrence in 2009, Brown and his students were reading recent research into functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI)—scans of the brain’s activity—conducted by cognitive neuroscientists at Harvard. The research showed the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that helps us recall the past, also helps us to imagine the future. Brown began to wonder: Is it possible that PTSD, a disorder that involves memories that haunt people, also involves a maladaptive way of imagining the future?

To figure out the answer, in 2010 Brown began to conduct studies at New York University’s School of Medicine, where he holds a position on the research faculty. The studies investigated how veterans with PTSD view the future and how their forecasting capacity affects their convalescence. “When we’re scanning the brains of veterans with PTSD, we’re asking them to recall events in the past, but also to imagine events in the future,” Brown says. “When they talk about the future, it’s less specific and rich.”

Compared to the control group of veterans without PTSD, the vets with PTSD generated future scenarios that were far more negative, both generally (another terrorist attack like 9/11) and personally (getting trapped on the subway). Brown says the new brain scans reveal that patients with PTSD do not use their prefrontal cortex as much when imagining positive future events. No one is quite sure why, but how this finding relates to recovery is critical, especially given that treatment for clinical disorders is often expensive, difficult, and time-consuming.

"One of the things that makes me appreciate the brain so much is how malleable it is, how imperfect it is as a machine."- Adam Brown (psychology)

“We’ve been able to help a lot of people, but there are still some people who don’t benefit from our current interventions,” Brown says.

“If we know what’s happening in the brains of those who aren’t recovering, then we can figure out techniques that help them recover.”

For those who aren’t responding to one form of therapy, for example, further brain scans might identify another, more effective form of help.

“One of the things that makes me appreciate the brain so much is how malleable it is, how imperfect it is as a machine,” Brown says. “There is something intriguing about that, frightening, and also exciting, and something that brings people together in an important way.”

But there are benefits from the brain’s very imperfections: its malleability allows it to change. As Brown’s research helps us understand how to influence that change, we might someday be better equipped to help those who have yet to recover.