What is memory?

Since the first attempts to answer that question emerged in the late 19th century, scientists have made gradual but significant progress toward understanding exactly what memory is and how it works. Among today's leading memory experts, few, if any, have had a greater impact than UC Irvine's James McGaugh.

A distinguished professor and fellow at UCI's Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, McGaugh's resume could fill this newspaper. As a scientist, he's devoted his life to advancing our knowledge of how memories are formed, retained and retrieved.

The spectacled, white-haired, clarinet-playing Newport Beach resident, who recently met with me in his modest office at the university, is a scientist's scientist — patient, self-effacing and all about the work. He leaves it to others to assign the accolades and welcomes efforts to build on his groundbreaking research.

Yet he's also highly sensitive to the importance of his endeavors. Indeed, it is the realization that memory is central to all that we are which continues to drive him decades after he began his quest.

"Memories are the bridge between the past and future," he said. "When you don't have your memories, you don't have a future."

Though McGaugh is more accustomed to detailed technical analysis, he is so passionate about his work that he generously agreed to try to explain his findings to a science dummy like me. With advance apologies if I mangle this, I'll attempt to impart some of his fascinating insights.

McGaugh was a music major at San Jose State in the early 1950s when a psychology course sparked his interest in the brain. He later earned his doctorate in physiological psychology at UC Berkeley. At UCI since the mid-1960s, his career has included stints as department heads and even vice chancellor for a while. Still teaching, today he continues the memory research that has earned him worldwide notice.

His status as a top memory researcher came early, in graduate school, when he conducted experiments to learn if certain drugs could be used to manipulate memories in laboratory rats. What he discovered rocked the field.

The drugs, neurotransmitters, were found to have a significant impact, but only when given within a short time frame after the memory was introduced. This suggested that it takes time for the brain to completely form a memory, a consolidation process that McGaugh likens to the setting of Jell-o or concrete.

He recalls that "my feet were about two feet off the floor" with the discovery, which has influenced the study of memory ever since.

But in science, one can never stand still, and every answer gives rise to a thousand questions. So McGaugh then sought to find out exactly what was happening, and why. Fast-forward through painstaking research, and what he learned is that the drugs he introduced in the lab essentially mimicked the natural process that occurs when hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol are released by the body. That led McGaugh and his scientific colleagues to hypothesize about the role of emotions in stimulating the release of these hormones, thus encouraging stronger memories.

I asked McGaugh how his discoveries might apply to the real world by, for instance, influencing teaching methods. He was cautious to remind me that he was a scientist focused on research, and that he'd leave it to others to look for practical applications of his findings.

But he did acknowledge that there is real science behind what might seem instinctual: Our memories are more resilient when we have strong feelings associated with them. He pointed to one study that found that if students were shown an exciting movie immediately after learning certain material, they performed better on tests — even if the subject of the movie had nothing to do with test questions.

"The message is if we find ways to make learning more exciting, we remember better," he said.

Another interesting area of research stemming from his findings has been with sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It's possible that the application of a beta-blocker drug immediately after a traumatic experience might subdue the onset of PTSD.

More recently, McGaugh's work has turned to the study of "superior autobiographical memory," a condition so far identified in a handful of people who can recall the specifics of virtually any date in their lives. This research has landed McGaugh again in the spotlight; about three years ago he appeared on the TV news show "60 Minutes" with some super-memory people, including actress Marilu Henner.

Back in the 1950s, a famous study of a subject known as "HM," who had a portion of his brain removed, led to the stunning discovery that there are different kinds of memories stored in various parts of the brain.

Will research into the super-learners produce a similarly important advancement in our understanding of memory?

McGaugh can't answer that question yet, but he's hopeful that it will yield some insights.

I left with the feeling that after decades spent trying to unlock the mysteries of memory, McGaugh will persist with the same enthusiasm and unquenchable curiosity that propelled him as a young graduate student more than 50 years ago.

"I'm interested in how things work," he said. "How does memory work? That's what's driven me."

Lucky for us that it still does.

PATRICE APODACA is a former Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She lives in Newport Beach.