Information Age Education
   Issue Number 35
February, 2010   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by David Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education project. See For more information, see the end of this newsletter.

"The strongest memory is not as strong as the weakest ink." (Confucius, 551 BC–479 BC.)

Recent issues of this newsletter have addressed some elements of human intelligence versus computer intelligence, and human creativity versus computer creativity. In both cases we explored major differences between human and computer capabilities and limitations, but noted that computer hardware and software “brain” capabilities are growing more rapidly human than brain capabilities are advancing through evolution.

This issue and the next address the interrelated topics of human and technological memories. We use a broad definition of technology, so that books, video recording and playback devices, and computers are all considered to be technology. The intriguing Confucius brain/print quote indicates that humans have a long history of thinking about memory and its supplementary technological aids.
Although a healthy brain's information base and processing ability are enormous, we often need help. We create written lists for personal use, seek information from the memories of others when we can't recall something, and we now use computerized search engines (such as Google) to draw on the immense and continually increasing information base of the Web.

This issue will focus on human memory and the type of loss that becomes especially problematic in many elderly people. The next issue will focus on technological memory and how it can supplement and sometimes replace human memory.

Past, Present, and Future

We live in the present, but we can recall the past and so use the results of prior experience to enhance our future. Memory and prediction are thus central to the maintenance of a current consciously controlled life. Past. Present. Future.

You sometimes forget things or cannot readily remember something you know you know. You know people who have suffered memory damage or deterioration. You have seen how devastating it can be to lose parts of one’s past.

Naïve children depend on the experiential memories and capabilities of their parents and other adults, who have typically amassed a rich store of useful knowledge. We adults tend to worry however, that we might eventually lose ready access to what we know, and thus revert to a childhood level of awareness. It’s disturbing to imagine a late life dependence on our children’s assistance that’s analogous to their childhood dependence on us.

Memory Systems

Both children and adults learn even though they have little understanding of how a human brain and its memory system work. The detailed workings of our brain’s memory and processing system are not yet well understood even by the leading researchers in this field of study.

Much of our cognitive activity focuses on movement — determining, activating, and predicting our own movements, and predicting the movements of objects and others.
Effective movements require efficient memory systems that encompass (1) relevant factual knowledge about our environment and personal experiences, and (2) motor skills that execute complex responsive motor programs. Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases are examples of maladies that result from a deterioration of the cognitive systems that allow us to easily understand and navigate our time/space environment.

Scientists generally divide memory into a short-term limited-capacity element of our attention system called working memory that has no long-term recall, and a more complex long-term memory of general and personal knowledge. We can thus remember where we put our car keys a few minutes ago, but not every place we’ve ever put them. We do however maintain a long-term factual memory of the recognition and purpose of car keys, and the skill memory of how to use them.

Memory is processed by a variety of related brain modules—each specialized to process an element of the memory (such as a color, shape, sound, and smell). The various brain modules that constitute a memory are linked, so activating one element of a memory will typically activate others (such as being able to visualize an unseen friend during a phone conversation).

We don’t store complete discrete memories that exist like photographs, but rather we reconstruct a triggered memory from a huge store of highly interconnected reusable elements developed from our life experiences. For example, the part of our visual system that recognizes red will respond to anything red, such as exit signs, stoplights, and catsup.

If seeing a restored automobile activates the memory of the same model we owned years ago, it may also activate memories of experiences we had with the car. We could thus think of memory as something dynamic that emerges when it’s needed to connect current and previous experiences—and memory loss as the inability to connect the present with our past.

It's adaptive for human memory to focus on information that's currently important. If something in our past was significant enough to be remembered, but is no longer significant, the strength of that memory tends to fade. The phrase “use it or lose it” is thus apt with human memory.

Most people find it easy to understand the idea of learning and remembering factual information, and that the Web can store factual information. It is more difficult to understand how a human brain stores and deals with emotions. Think of factual memory as being more about remembering what happened, and emotional memory as being about remembering how you felt about what happened. Both are important, but our emotional memories are typically the more powerful. For example, our emotional memories of a childhood experience are often stronger than our remembrance of its factual details.
Given the complexity of our memory system, the loss of any of its elements may reduce the effectiveness of the entire system. Most of us thus become concerned when we suffer memory lapses, fearful that they may signal the beginning of the disintegration of the complete system.

What Scientists Know About Memory Loss

Sue Halpern is a respected writer for The New Yorker magazine who became professionally interested in memory when her elderly father developed serious memory problems.  The result of her search for what researchers know and don’t know about the decline of memory is Can’t Remember What I Forgot: The Good News From The Front Lines Of Memory Research (2008). Although the subtitle suggests a more positive report than the book actually provides, it’s an informative book. It’s basically the report of her fascinating investigation into the difficulty of researching and reversing the increased memory loss we tend to experience as we age.

Halpern takes us on the personal tour of the memory research community that we might all take if we had the time, background, contacts, and determination to discover the current state of knowledge. She participated in many of the research investigations she describes. The book is thus an intriguing combination of anecdotes about the set of important researchers she meets during her quest, and helpful non-technical observations and explanations of the nature and potential of their research. She seasons her discussion of researchers and their discoveries with a dose of skepticism that is an expression of her realization that researchers must truly believe in and promote what they’re attempting to do, even when the odds are against them—given that they must constantly seek grant support for their research and commit to long frustrating laboratory hours.

Since no current cure exists for the dementias, the research has tended to focus on delaying the onset. Dementia tends to be a malady of aging, and so delaying its onset means that potential patients and their families won’t suffer as long, or that the person might die of something less destructive to personal dignity and family relationships. Still, some researchers are currently focused on potential cures, and the level of understanding of dementia is considerably advanced over that of a few years ago. That’s the Good News of the book’s subtitle.

Halpern focuses on two research approaches that hope to reduce memory loss. The first seeks to identify a chemical abnormality that a drug could ameliorate. For example, the hippocampus is a structure that plays a central role in memory. It has long been implicated in Alzheimer’s disease, but researcher Scott Small discovered that memory loss associated with normal aging occurs in a hippocampal area called the dentate gyrus, and memory loss associated with Alzheimer’s disease occurs in a hippocampal area called the entorhinal cortex. This discovery allows researchers to focus their search for abnormalities in a specific area.

The second approach focuses on brain plasticity, the ability to improve brain network connections through intensive practice in related activities. For example, right-handed violin players increase left-hand digital competence through violin practice, and chess players increase their knowledge of effective strategies by playing a lot of matches with good players. One fascinating study traced the documented lives of 678 elderly Roman Catholic nuns to discover the reasons for their much lower than normal incidence of dementias (

Since stimulating activities that enhance memory capabilities can actually improve our mental capabilities, computerized brain training programs are emerging that purport to enhance networks that regulate memory. One problem with these programs is that most purchasers don’t know how effective they are. Memory enhancing drugs must pass stringent federal research guidelines before they can be sold, but no such oversight exists for brain training computer programs.

One approach to credibility for such programs is through independent studies of their effectiveness. For example, Posit Science’s Brain Fitness Program was investigated by researchers at University of Southern California and the Mayo Clinic, and the positive results were published in a peer-reviewed journal, The Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. See

Educational Implications

This article focused principally on late life loss of memory.

It is certainly important for educators to realize that a stimulating active life will enhance the development of memory and other cognitive functions in people of all ages. Further, progress is occurring in the development of drugs that enhance memory. Unfortunately, some of this progress is creating new challenges to our educational system. Many students use caffeine. Many non-ADHD students are now acquiring Ritalin, Provigil, and other prescription drugs to enhance learning and memory. Are we headed toward the testing of all students for their possible use of cognitive enhancement drugs?


Halpern, S. (2008) Can’t remember what I forgot: The good news from the front lines of memory research. New York: Harmony Books.

Sylwester, Robert (2010). Fading memories, emerging understanding. Retrieved 2/10/2010 from,_Emerging_Understanding.

About Information Age Education, Inc.

Information Age Education is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving education for learners of all ages throughout the world. IAE is a project of the Science Factory, a 501(c)(3) science and technology museum located in Eugene, Oregon. Current IAE activities include a Wiki with address, a Website containing free books and articles at, and the free newsletter you are now reading.

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