Life Sciences / Science of Learning


Technology, Biology, and a Memory Revolution

When I share random pieces of information I’ve picked up from science blogs or magazines, my friends often get that “if-this-story-lasts-more-than-three-minutes-I’m-leaving” look in their eyes. But there’s one anecdote that they respond to with appreciation, and even envy.

It’s the story of Kim Peek, a savant gifted with the extraordinary ability to scan pages of books two at a time and instantly memorize their entire contents. In many ways, Peek had a difficult life. His unique brain structure stripped him of the ability to interact on the same social plane as most people.

But it’s no wonder my friends sigh with jealousy. To be able to read and remember hundreds of pages of content so effortlessly sounds like a dream come true for most college students.


Even as teachers refresh curriculums and start testing students with questions that require synthesis and originality, the fact remains that any course with tests requires at least a base level of memorization. Even classes that assess students without traditional exams reward those who can remember the most. For example, in discussion-based courses, the students who contribute most effectively are those who can cite relevant examples and draw on outside knowledge to better contextualize conversations.

In the “real world,” memory has its perks too: those who remember more are often better writers and conversationalists, to name two examples.

As college students, my friends and I are eager to take advantage of any technological developments that may make our memorization process as effortless as Peek’s. I was thrilled, for example, when I discovered an application that would allow me to create flashcards on my computer and then quiz myself on my iPhone. That was just one of the many ways I tried to use technology to learn more by doing less. I used Google Documents to collaborate on shared study guides. I read books online and watched YouTube videos that explained scientific concepts. And I searched for resources, like the upcoming NOVA interactive activity on the brain, which allow me to visualize information in new ways.

All of these techniques were helpful. Typing out a 40-page study guide that can be edited online by other students in my class is a lot less painful than writing it by hand or even emailing notes back and forth. And watching a YouTube video that explains the stages of an action potential is more fun than reading an explanation in a textbook.

But none of the technological tools available to me seemed to change—or demystify—my process of remembering. As a student studying cognitive neuroscience, the idea of how my own memory works has always intrigued me; however, even after years of studying, I still barely understand how my mind remembers. Why do I remember that flash card after seeing it four times rather than just three? Why do some facts stick in my memory instantly, while others cause recurring nightmares of a blank mind? Why can I still sing a 30-second jingle I made up to recall a sequence of neurotransmitters but forget most of the words to favorite songs from my summer camp that I have probably sung hundreds of times?

Though I’ve been using new tools to help cram information into my brain, my process of remembering is almost identical to the process I used when I had only paper flash cards and physical books. I read or watch or hear information. I think about it and desperately try to think of a way to connect that information to some logical sequence of facts I can remember. I repeat the process again and again.

 Over the past five years or so, technology has dramatically changed the way I study, but I don’t know if it has had any impact on my memory process. Despite my undying love for technology, it has been unable to answer my questions about why and how I remember.


Students of my generation have lived through a technological revolution that has changed the way we think about learning. But how will further advances in science inform education?

The upcoming season of NOVA scienceNOW delves into related questions. The episode “How Smart Can We Get?” ponders the limits of the human brain. “What Will the Future Be Like?” explores fascinating advances in technology that may fundamentally shift the way in which we interact with the world.

These advances suggest that in the future, a lucky generation of students will live through not just a technological revolution that will continue to make learning more exciting, but a biological one that will change the way we think about remembering.

Studies are already revealing fascinating and useful information about our minds, like the extraordinary capacity of our spatial memories or how our recollection of ideas can be improved if we are tested in the same environment in which we learned. Scientists know all about how memories are encoded and retrieved. But I think we have just scratched the surface when it comes to applying this information to practical applications.

People have already created hundreds of memory techniques; one is a mnemonic device called a “memory palace” that involves creating mental images that bring to mind certain facts and then scattering them around a mental picture of a known location (like one’s home). But these techniques are fallible: people still struggle to remember the ideas the mnemonic is supposed to trigger or to correctly visualize the relevant image in their palace.

Imagine how useful it would be to understand why our brains can recall particular ideas and facts at some moments. Imagine not only knowing a certain concept, but also exactly why you know it and why you can recall it. And imagine using this information to develop new ways of thinking and studying.

I am living through a technological revolution that has changed the way my educators and I approach learning. But I can’t help but feel a little jealous of the students of the future, the students who I hope will benefit from enhanced technological developments that have been informed by scientists’ quest to deepen our understanding of the way the human mind works. They won’t all turn into Kim Peeks; however, perhaps if they are gifted with more knowledge about the amazing ways in which their own brain functions, they won’t respond to his story with as much envy.

Related Links

Study Tools for Your Students:

  • Quizlet – This is an extremely useful website that enables users to create online flashcards and test yourself with various games.
  • SoundNote – This application enables students to link notes on their iPad with audio recordings of lectures. I haven’t used it, but it seems like it could prove useful, especially for students who have trouble keeping up with fast-talking professors.
  • SelfControl – From my perspective, SelfControl is the most used and most needed high-tech study tool in existence, especially for students prone to procrastination (i.e., all students). Users simply type in URLs of distracting websites and set a timer; until it goes off, all forbidden websites are disabled. What’s more, SelfControl is almost unhackable—there is no apparent way to turn it off except for waiting out the clock (and believe me, I have tried).

More About Memory:

  • A Scientific American article about the brains of taxi drivers in London who must memorize all of the city streets and landmarks before receiving their cab licenses.
  • Joshua Foer’s column on how he trained to compete in the U.S.A. Memory Championship—a feat that requires extraordinary discipline but, surprisingly, no innate mental gift.
  • An article in the Guardian about a study that suggests that in many cases, it is poor working memory, not low intelligence, that causes students to struggle in school.




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Kate Nussenbaum

    As NOVA's Online Intern, Kate blogs from the student perspective. As a sophomore at Brown University studying cognitive neuroscience, she is particularly interested in how our growing understanding of the brain may shape the ways we approach education. Kate writes for the science section of her school’s newspaper and you can follow her on twitter @katenuss.