Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
SAF Archives  search ask the scientists in the classroom cool science
Guide Index

Big Picture

The Man with Two Brains

Remembering What Matters

True or False?

What's in a Dream?

Old Brain/New Tricks

Viewer Challenge
in the classroom

PIECES OF MIND: True or False?

Noted brain researcher Daniel Schacter of Harvard wondered if memories are located in a certain region of the brain. His work convinced him that memories are not fixed, but malleable, and scattered as bits and pieces in different areas of the brain. Schacter also wondered if false memories can be implanted in the brain. Alan Alda volunteers to be the research subject of an experiment that studies whether we "remember" events that did not happen.

Curriculum Links
Activity 1: Visual Recall
Activity 2: Mnemonic Devices
For Further Thought




brain organization

human brain


mental heath




imaging techniques


  1. Draw a picture of a familiar setting like a living room, classroom or playground. Do not fill the set with objects.

  2. Photocopy the scene and set the copy aside.

  3. To the original sketch, add drawings of furniture and other objects normally found in the setting.

  4. When you've finished adding objects to your scene, exchange completed scenes with a partner. Study each other's furnished scenes for 60 seconds.

  5. Exchange the original, unfurnished scenes and try to sketch in as many of the missing objects as you can remember.


Mnemonics, or the science or art of aiding memory, is an ancient concept. Many people rely on mnemonic devices to help remember what they've learned or need to recall, from grocery lists to people's names to kings and queens or the presidents. What works for one person may not work for another. The five devices described below suggest ways to help improve memory. Each device is followed by a challenge.

This technique depends on visualizing a journey in which objects to be recalled are placed in familiar locations. For example, suppose you had to remember such unrelated items as a tuba, ice skate, pen, walrus, coffee cup and airplane. You can visualize a walk through the rooms of your house in which each item is placed in a different room. This technique is useful for memorizing bones or muscles of the body or other lists of related terms.

    Write a list of 15 objects. Exchange lists with a partner. Allow a few minutes to create memory maps of your partner's list based on a familiar location or path. Then remove the lists and proceed on your visual journey, writing down all the objects you can recall from your partner's list.
Developing associations is a familiar strategy used to recall information by connecting it to other, more familiar pieces of information. For example, memorizing a sequence of seemingly random digits is easy when that number series is your birth date or street address. Developing associations is also a helpful way to remember new information.

    Develop a 10- or 15-digit random number that does not repeat and figure out associations to help you memorize it. Use each type of association only once (only one date or one phone number, etc.). Exchange numbers with a partner and memorize, using associations.
Device 3: RHYMING
Rhymes and jingles are powerful memory devices. Just think how often you have used the rhyme, "Thirty days has September. . ." to recall the number of days within a month.

    Compose a list of 15 objects to memorize. Exchange lists with a partner. Set a time limit of five minutes to create a rhyme that incorporates the words on the list. Then use your rhyme to recall the memorized words.
Device 4: CHUNKING
When reciting a telephone or Social Security number, most people are apt to speak it in three chunks. For example, the first and second chunks of a phone number consist of three digits and the third chunk contains four digits. Chunking the numbers makes a meaningless series easier to remember. Can you think of other series of numbers that are frequently chunked?

    Try memorizing a series of nine random numbers. Then break up the series into three chunks. Does chunking help to recall the numbers?
Device 5: ACRONYMS
An acronym is a word formed from the initial letter or letters of each of the parts of a name or organization. For example, the acronym LASER stands for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. Some other familiar acronyms are RADAR, REM sleep, SCUBA, SONAR, NASA, ZIP code, etc.

Though we usually think of acronyms as names of organizations or terms created by the scientific or medical community, you can also make up acronyms to help you remember information. Think of an acronym as a "fun" word or phrase in which each letter stands for the first letter of the item to be recalled. For example, Roy G. Biv stands for the colors of the spectrum. Psychology students made up the acronym WIRES to remember kinds of memory (working, implicit, remote, episodic, semantic).

    Create acronyms to describe each of your school subjects. Or, devise a quiz to see how many official acronyms you can spell out.
An acrostic is a memory strategy similar to an acronym, but it takes the first letters of a series of words, lines or verses to form a memorable phrase. An acrostic is probably more well known as a kind of crossword puzzle or poetry game.

Sometimes the phrase is nonsense, which may help you remember it! Here are two: King Philip Came Over For Great Spaghetti or Kings Play Cards On Fat Green Stools. Each acrostic stands for the biological classification hierarchy (Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species).

    Create an acrostic to help you remember the planets in the solar system in order or some other concept, like the 10 most abundant elements in the universe.

  • Repeat the picnic experiment seen on FRONTIERS, but script a different scene. Use a Polaroid to take photos.
  • In what ways do photographs enhance our memories?
  • What do you think memory was like in the long history of humans before photography?
  • Survey people to see what mnemonic devices they have used to remember things.

  • Do you think imaging techniques similar to those shown on this episode of FRONTIERS should ever be used as evidence in a trial? Why or why not?

  • In what ways do photographs enhance our memories?

  • What do you think memory was like in the long history of humans before photography?

CREDIT: These activities were contributed by Massachusetts science writer and consultant Michael DiSpezio, author of Critical Thinking Puzzles (Sterling, 1996).


Scientific American Frontiers
Fall 1990 to Spring 2000
Sponsored by GTE Corporation,
now a part of Verizon Communications Inc.