Think of the last party you attended. While other people at the same party likely have similar memories of the festivities, your specific perception and memories of the event are unique to you.
Most neuroimaging research looks at group-level patterns of brain activity – which areas of most participants' brains light up when they do a certain task or think a certain thought. But recent research published in Nature Communications took a more personalized approach, investigating whether patterns of brain activity elicited while imagining common experiences can distinguish individual people.
Participants were instructed to “vividly imagine themselves in the scenario” (such as driving a car, attending a party, or cooking a meal) and describe the imagined experience. The researchers then created custom models for each participant based on their verbal descriptions and non-linguistic elements (such as sensory, motor, and emotional characteristics) of the experiences. They found that an individual’s personalized model better predicted their neural activity than other participants’ models, suggesting that neuroimaging can be used to detect and predict individual differences in our memory for common experiences.
While this study focused on healthy older adults, future research may be able to use this method to personalize diagnoses and treatments for disorders related to memory and imagery deficits, such as Alzheimer’s disease and depression. The findings more generally underscore the importance of individual differences – that our unique experiences of common events are what make us individuals, down to the neural level.