Goodbye, memory

With midterms upon us, the ability to store, retain and regurgitate information becomes increasingly important.

With midterms upon us, the ability to store, retain and regurgitate information becomes increasingly important. Ever since we first learned our letters and numbers, we’ve been trying to remember things. Many of us have been taught that rote memorization, or repetition with little or no concern for meaning, is the way to pass our tests.

So now, at midterms, we are down to the wire. It’s do or die. At this point, who cares what we’ve really learned? It’s all about the grade. Like it or not, society uses grades to define us. Grades often determine if we are allowed to continue our education. Grades have the potential to determine what our incomes look like years down the line. It isn’t difficult to make the connection. Good memory equals good grades, equals good paycheck.


There are three different types of memories: sensory memories, short-term memories and long-term memories. These types of memories function in different ways and operate out of different regions of the brain. Sensory memories and short-term memories seem to be housed in specific regions of the brain, the frontal and parietal lobes, whereas long-term memories are distributed throughout the mass of the brain.

Understanding sensory memories is fairly simple. They involve the senses. The ability to see a face and recognize it later is a sensory memory. Hearing a tune and recalling the melody is also a sensory memory. Without repetition, the essence of these memories tends to fade over time. When you haven’t seen one of your friends for a long time, you know you would recognize them, but you can’t quite visualize their face.

Short-term memory allows most people to remember a piece of information for up to a minute without repetition. Somewhere between 4 and 9 items can be held in short-term memory. Grouping items together in meaningful units can help increase one’s short-term memory capacity. Sensory memories and short-term memories are fleeting. What did you have for lunch yesterday? And the day before?

Long-term memories cast a wide net, spreading neural connections throughout the brain. One can hold many more long-term memories than short-term memories, but it can take considerable effort in the form of practice, repetition and contemplation to create long-term memories. The hippocampus plays a crucial role in transitioning information from short-term to long-term memory. (Note: be good to your hippocampus.) Re-routing neural connections and thereby converting short-term memories into long-term memories is a process that can last longer than three months. Memory is all about connections, making them and keeping them.

Brain-Computer Interface

But wait. There is another way. A new technology called brain-computer interface provides a way for people to use their thoughts to communicate their intentions to the outside world. Currently this technology is limited to simple actions such as moving a cursor up or down, or selecting a particular letter on a computer screen. Mastery of this type of mind-manipulation can allow one to write a letter and surf the internet.

Brain activity is accompanied by electromagnetic fluctuations. Using biofeedback one can learn how to control one’s brain waves and thereby operate this new technology.

This is truly exciting, not only for those of us stricken with bouts of laziness, but more importantly, for those with motor disabilities. A brain-computer interface can break down the isolation felt by those whose brains function normally, but whose motor abilities are impaired to such an extent that their bodies do not react to their brain’s commands.

How long will it be before we can surf the internet while carrying on a conversation, or better yet, while taking a test? Blink, blink, I’ll tell you anything you want to know–as long as the information on the net is correct. Forget cramming. Forget rote memorization. Memorizing–that’s so yesterday.

Near Future Expectations

Scientists at the University of Southern California’s Center for Neural Engineering are designing silicon chips that are able to communicate with living brain cells in mice. These chips send electric pulses that nearly match the exact modulation frequencies of mice brain cells. Since the chip can communicate with live brain cells, the next step is to develop a machine-like device that can be implanted in the brain, a “memory implant.” The hope is that this technology will help Alzheimer’s patients. Some believe the ability to replicate memory is within reach and may be less than two decades away.

Questions arise when considering how these memory implants will work. Will new and improved memory machines function the same as healthy memory cells? Will there be any change to the actual thoughts produced by such implants? Will the chips restore lost memories or merely allow new memories to be retained? Will memory chips change thoughts and consciousness? Could thoughts and consciousness be programmed? What are the ethical concerns of engineering memory and consciousness? Is there more involved than mathematical equations, silicon and chemistry? Is there some kind of unexpected X factor? A Frankenstein effect? Nobody knows. Regardless of the ethical concerns, there is little doubt that upcoming developments in brain research will be worth following.

Back to Reality

Whatever your preferred neural prosthetic device might be, from special eyewear to silicon chip implants, for now, the average college student must resort to memorizing the old fashioned way. At least we’ll be able to nag our kids. “When I was your age, I actually had to learn something…”