While You Were Sleeping…

“The experiments were abandoned. No further attempt was made to teach children the length of the Nile in their sleep. Quite rightly. You can’t learn a science unless you know what it’s all about.

“Whereas, if they’d only started on moral education,” said the Director, leading the way towards the door. The students followed him, desperately scribbling as they walked and all the way up in the lift. “Moral education, which ought never, in any circumstances, to be rational.”

… The Director pushed back the switch. The voice was silent. Only its thin ghost continued to mutter from beneath the eighty pillows.

Whether it’s your dream come true or the last straw before you flee to Wyoming and hole up with a pile of tin hats and your best girl, Bessie…


… you have to admit, everyone wants to know if hypnopoedia can be done.

“So- is it possible?” you ask.

“Dude. I’m a blogger,” I respond.

Still, one thing I can do is lay out some of the arguments for both possibilities… and then maybe argue a little more.


Yea: Dream within a Dream

No, I’m not referencing Inception, you plebes. (Though if you haven’t seen it, go watch it right now. Now. And pick up a volume of Edgar Allen Poe on your way.)

I’m talking about the idea that the things you listen to while you sleep can be incorporated into your long-term memory while you’re dreaming- an idea so exciting, there’s a whole industry built around the idea that it might work.

So if you were too busy slaughtering aliens in Call of Duty to study for your zoology midterm, you can just pop a review-cassette in the CD player, adjust your headphones, and nod off to dreams of electric sheep.

(If you were too busy bouncing around the ether as a disembodied soul to even know what a cassette player is, you should probably watch this video… Actually, watch it anyway.)

From hypnpoedia, it’s only one short step to Matrix-style cortical information downloads!


Nay: In Your Dreams

Learn while sleeping? For serious? If you think that’s possible, I have special serum for ya- guaranteed to add eight inches! (To your cerebellum- get your mind out of the gutter.)

While hopefuls will point to a tradition of sleep-learning going back to the Egyptians, and alarmists will quote Huxley and Clockwork Orange ’til you drop, skeptics point out that pop views of sleep learning are the techie equivalent of sticking your Biology book under your pillow and attempting to learn via diffusion. (Btw- no judgment if you’ve ever tried that; we’ve all been there.) It’s just not realistic.

Apologies to all of you potential evil overlords out there, but no- you cannot brainwash people in their sleep. Not even minions. As Roy Cox & Co. pointed out in their 2014 report, while you can process external stimuli during certain deep sleep slow oscillation phases, research suggests that despite the application of stimuli during both oscillatory up and down states, “no enduring memories were formed.” It’s a sad day for budding supervillains everywhere.

Three graphs that essentially boil down to: Nice try, Kingpin.
Three graphs that essentially boil down to: Nice try, Kingpin.


The Middle Path

So if sleep turns your brain into the glymphatic equivalent of a heavy rinse cycle, and research has shown that we honestly don’t process the things our significant other yells at us when we’re asleep, then how can you really, truly, learn new things while you sleep? Well, I’ve got some good news and bad news.

Good news: There are some researchers who do believe you can learn things in your sleep.

Bad news: They all agree that you have to learn them while you’re awake, first.

Life's Not Fair

Bear with me- it’s not as bad as it may seem.

We’ve already learned from Prof. Oakley’s class (and previously-discussed research) that sleep is necessary to bolster our cognition for the monumental task of dealing with daily life. Insufficient sleep leads to a build-up of metabolic toxins in the brain, impairing attention, language, reasoning, learning, memory… pretty much you name it, it’s impaired. But does this impairment due to insufficient sleep necessarily mean that sleep enhances cognition?

Susanne Diekelmann says no. She quotes A. Sandberg’s definition of cognitive enhancement as “the amplification or extension of core capabilities of the mind,” and notes that sleep- on its own- does not accomplish this. Sleep, she emphasizes, is known to facilitate memory consolidation, i.e., to strengthen and stabilize new memories that were acquired before sleep. Please note both the bolded and bolded-underlined portions of that sentence. You have to learn on your own before you sleep. There’s just no way around that, folks.


There may, however, be ways to use sleep to facilitate both stronger consolidation and easier retrieval of things you learn before you sleep. Let’s discuss two broad approaches to this proposition.

The first approach is the flower-child, eat-organic, Whole-Foods-friendly approach to sleep enhancement that we’ve learned in Prof. Oakley’s class. You want to learn more efficiently and effectively? Space it out. Specifically, in this case, time your learning in relation to your sleep cycles. In a 2011 study on sleep and human learning, Bryce Mander (et al., as always) found that introducing short naps before learning new information fosters the initial acquisition and encoding of new episodic memory traces. I think it’s worth pointing out here that the participants in Mander’s study were in their late teens and early twenties, providing even more support for my campaign to institute work-place nap times. (Nap are no longer just for kids!)

After the nap, study like a fiend (maybe using that Pomodoro technique)… and then go ahead and sleep again. Whaaat? Yes! Give me ALL THE SLEEP. Diekelmann points out a number of studies have shown that sleeping shortly after encoding (e.g. studying) “benefit the consolidation of fresh memories to preserve these memories for the long-term and protect them from subsequent interfering inputs.” Snazzy.

So that’s the au naturale way of doing things; now let’s talk about the evil scientist/Lex Luther/dystopian government forces in unmarked black helicopters approach.

Don't worry. This sign will help.
Don’t worry. This sign will help.

Now, this second approach is complex enough (and thrillingly cool-creepy enough) to merit its own post, which I will hopefully have up by tomorrow. (::pause for incredulous laughter::) But here’s the gist- approach #2 focuses on manipulating memory and/or sleep directly. Diekelmann points out three different methods researchers are exploring in order to achieve this direct manipulation:

Manipulation of Memory Reactivation During Sleep

Manipulation of Sleep Specific Brain Oscillations

Manipulation of Neurotransmitter Systems

(Grab hold of Bessie, y’all.)

I’m going to go into all three of these approaches in the next blog post, including tips on how you might be able to try them at home. I will not be going into the ethics of attempting such endeavors (yes, there are ethical conundrums here besides “oh, KEWL”), as that is another subject deserving of its own post sometime in the future.

Unfortunately, this means that the “Morning People Are Mutants” post is going to be pushed back again, but I have started writing it. As additional appeasement for the delay, I will say that the post will also discuss the ways in which mut… I mean, “morning people”… are more susceptible to some of the brainwashing… I mean, “enhancement”… techniques that I will be discussing.

Thanks for reading! Sleep well…



Cox, R., Korjoukov I., de Boer M., Talamini L.M. Sound asleep: processing and retention of slow oscillation phase-targeted stimuli. 2014 Jul 7;9(7):e101567. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0101567. eCollection 2014. See: http://ow.ly/AAq8M

Diekelmann. Sleep for cognitive enhancement. Front Syst Neurosci. 2014; 8: 46. Published online Apr 2, 2014. doi: 10.3389/fnsys.2014.00046 See: http://ow.ly/AGMtx

Ellenbogen J. M., Hulbert J. C., Jiang Y., Stickgold R. (2009). The sleeping brain’s influence on verbal memory: boosting resistance to interference. PLoS One 4:e4117 10.1371/journal.pone.0004117 See: http://ow.ly/AGGbL

Gais S., Lucas B., Born J. (2006b). Sleep after learning aids memory recall. Learn. Mem. 13, 259–262 10.1101/lm.132106

Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World, Chapter 2. See: http://www.huxley.net/bnw/two.html

Mander B. A., Santhanam S., Saletin J. M., Walker M. P. (2011). Wake deterioration and sleep restoration of human learning. Curr. Biol. 21, R183–R184 10.1016/j.cub.2011.01.019 See: http://ow.ly/AGAAn

Payne J. D., Chambers A. M., Kensinger E. A. (2012a). Sleep promotes lasting changes in selective memory for emotional scenes. Front. Integr. Neurosci. 6:108 10.3389/fnint.2012.00108 See: http://ow.ly/AGGZx

Payne J. D., Tucker M. A., Ellenbogen J. M., Wamsley E. J., Walker M. P., Schacter D. L., et al. (2012b). Memory for semantically related and unrelated declarative information: the benefit of sleep, the cost of wake. PLoS One 7:e33079 10.1371/journal.pone.0033079 See: http://ow.ly/AGHCL



Bessie the Shotgun, Volpin Props See: http://ow.ly/AGSl8

Black Helicopters Not Allowed, regmedia.co.uk, See: http://ow.ly/AGJHr

Computer Head, See: previous post

Event-related potentials during wakefulness… graph. See: http://ow.ly/AAq8M

Scar gif, See: http://www.tumblr.com/tagged/lifes-not-fair

Chunk Like a Champion

I know I said (again) that I would post about sleep, but I lied. (Again.) 

There’s just too much to read! TOO MUCH! Like this amazing 80-page article! So the post on sleep will be next time, I promise (mebbe).  Just to sweeten the pot a little, though- the eventual sleep article will offer conclusive proof that morning people are mutants. Mutants! I knew it all along.

Important syllogistic distinction- all morning people are mutants, but not all mutants are morning people.
Important syllogistic distinction- all morning people are mutants, but not all mutants are morning people.

So this post is going to talk about memory (surprise!) and chunking- which is nothing at all like chucking, dunking, or funky, regardless of what my octogenarian iPhone may think. (Go home, iPhone. You’re drunk.)

Now, to review- what is memory? Well, as prominent cognitive scientist Steven Pinker says, the mind works when “[b]rain cells fire in patterns.” And ‘patterns’… well, that’s pretty much what a chunk is.

I know- post over, right?

Yeah, right.

So- what are chunks, how do we form them, and how can we access them more efficiently and effectively? Unsurprisingly, there are a Whole Buncha Scientists™ who have some thoughts on these matters.


What are chunks?

So remember all those days ago when I posted about memory? Encoding, storage, retrieval… sad dude with a computer head… any of this sounding familiar? Anyway, I likened short-term and long-term memory to RAM and ROM (implicitly), and emphasized that long-term memory relied on repetition, utilization, and cross-referencing. (Note the repetition, utilization, and cross-referencing that are happening before your very eyes. We practice what we preach here.)

Chunks, then, though they may be a new (and vaguely off-putting) term, are not a totally foreign concept. “Chunk” is just another word for a bit of information that you relate to other bits, creating a concept. This concept then makes it easier to relate the information to other concepts you already know.

Neurologically speaking, chunking is when certain neurons in the brain get used to firing together, allowing you to think certain thoughts more smoothly and efficiently. (Guida et al. call it binding or “encoding the relations among stimuli that co-occur.”)

Neurons linking into a chunk, and then connecting to other chunks to form systemic chunks (i.e. a knowledge base)
Neurons linking into a chunk, and then connecting to other chunks to form systemic chunks (i.e. a knowledge base)


How do we form chunks?

This idea of the neurological chunk was actually introduced way back in 1956 by a scientist named G.A. Miller. Have you ever heard that common knowledge saying that humans can only hold seven things in their memory at any one time? (You may have also heard “four,” “five,” or “nine.” Common knowledge is commonly unknowing like that.) The saying dates back to this Miller guy… though what he actually said was that it was “seven plus or minus two.” (Which kind of explains the discrepancy.)

Anyway. His main point was that short-term storage is not completely rigid in structure (not like a computer’s RAM), and is amenable to certain neurological linking processes that can expand its capacity beyond its usual restraints. It does this by organizing “perceptual, cognitive, or behavioral sequential activity” into groups of sequences, sub-sequences, sub-sub-sequences, etc. (See: Rabinovich et al.)

So chunks are bits of info, organized into sub-sub-, sub-, and regular old-sequences, that link to other bits of organized info in your ROM-noggin to make it easier on your RAM! Whew. Aren’t you glad I cleared that all up for you?

Functionally, though, it makes sense. A baby first has to learn that his hand is actually part of his body (a process that involves epic amusement on the part of the parent/s). This sensorimotor awareness is one chunk of information.

Nom nom nom
Nom nom nom

Then he figures out that his hands and fingers can press different things at different times (a process that involves epic baby-proofing scrambling on the part of the parent/s). This becomes another chunk, linked to the first.

Fun with fingers
Fun with fingers

Eventually- with a whole lotta other chunks coming into play- he can learn to play Chopin.

Lang Lang on Piano
Chunking gives you wings!

Would he be able to play Chopin without this chunking process? No- because he’d be too busy trying to remember that his hands were part of his body and his fingers could move separately and there was a black splotch called a note and that that note had a meaning and something about sound and whoa is that shiny… and eventually his short-term memory would overload and he’d be back to gnawing on his own hand and wondering why it hurt.

The glory of chunks is that they allow our working memory to reach down and into our long-term memory, and draw upon concepts that enrich our understanding of whatever it is we’re trying to learn. Eventually, the chunks become so accustomed to firing together that they do so automatically, and become the foundation to which other, newer, chunks can attach. This is your knowledge base.


Chunk Like a Champion Today!

( I couldn't resist. If you've been to Notre Dame, you'll understand. If you haven't, go watch "Rudy." Now. I don't care if you don't like sports movies- this one's got wee!Sean Astin and it's adorable.)
( I couldn’t resist. If you’ve been to Notre Dame, you’ll understand. If you haven’t, go watch “Rudy.” Now. I don’t care if you don’t like sports movies- this one’s got wee!Sean Astin and it’s adorable.)

Dr. Barba Oakley recommends a three-step process to more effectively and efficiently move chunks from short-term to long-term memory:

  • Concentrate
  • Comprehend
  • Carry out

…Okay, what she actually recommends is focus, understanding, and practice, but the liberal arts major in me craves alliteration. It’s a personal failing. Besides, doesn’t “The Three Cs of Chunking” have a nicer ring than “The FUP of Chunking”?



The first step is to focus your undivided attention on the information you want to remember. Notice the underline? That means it’s important. Undivided.

This means you cannot practice your piccolo piece while thinking about cat memes, or try to memorize your vocab list while The Big Bang Theory plays in the background. (Big Bang is another thing that deserves undivided attention.) If you try to multitask, your working memory will ignore your pure intentions and try to catalog everything that’s going on around you- even if you don’t notice it- which will leave you fewer mental resources to bring to bear on the task at hand.

Don’t believe me? Studies by Prof. Clifford Nass of Stanford University have shown that self-described multi-taskers “performed much worse on cognitive and memory tasks that involved distraction than did people who said they preferred to focus on single tasks.” This might be because people who are distracted encode new information in a half-conscious system of “habit memory,” as Columbia scientist Karen Foerde hypothesized; while focused learners save the information to their long-term, declarative memory system. Learners are left feeling as though they know the material- and even able to repeat it to a certain extent- but unable to retain the information long-term, or connect it to any other pieces of their neurological jigsaw puzzle.

Prof. Barbara Oakley calls this the “illusion of competence”- the feeling that you get when you’re having a study party with friends and so totally own the test material, but that leads to you sitting at the test the next day remembering nothing but the brand of gummy bears you snarfed down. Use some of the techniques in the 10 Good Habits of Studying to help get past these pitfalls. I find recall and mini-testing to be solid techniques for separating the men from the boys… or the non-gender-discriminatory memories from the habits…

So turn off your smartphone and reorient your brain. Remember- the goal is not just to absorb the new information; you want to connect these new chunklets to preexisting patterns in your brain.



The key to comprehension is context (more c’s!). But really. In order to hold your tentative new memory traces together, you have to link it to other things you already know.

It’s like that “a-HA!” moment when you’ve been trying and trying to think of that artist (who was kind of like Warhol, but not really at all, and don’t you know what I’m talking about guys- the dude with the clowny balloon animals?) and then your co-worker mentions how critters got into her garbage last night (and isn’t that a pain, I told Martin we should get a cat), and out of the blue, you scream “JEFF KOONS!”

And everyone turns around and stares.

It’s kind of like that.

Warholy cartoony balloon animal- am I wrong?
Warholy cartoony balloon animal- am I wrong?

Barbara Oakley explains it better. She notes that a good chunk is like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle; it has edges that enable you to connect it to other pieces that are already in your knowledge base. Sometimes these other pieces might be related (like adding information on chunking to what you already know about memory), but sometimes they may seem unrelated (like connecting Jeff Koons to raccoons, just because they kind of sound alike). These connections are important, because they allow you to draw connection between concepts and more easily retrieve them when you want to remember. Without links, your chunk is less like a puzzle piece and more like a flat coin, unable to connect link to anything else and thus much more difficult to retrieve.


Carry Out

(On second thought, this alliteration thing is just making me crave curry.)

The idea of comprehension and memory retrieval leads to the final step- practice. Practice, as Prof. Oakley reminds us, helps you understand not just how but when to use a chunk. (For example, knowledge of Jeff Koons would be more aptly applied to a discussion of art or consumerism or Jesus even clowns than a discussion of Martha’s woodland creature infestation.) With math, it will enable you to see the different types of problems to which an algorithm might be applied; in language, you may begin to pick up secondary meanings or connotations that you wouldn’t notice just from learning the word.

Moreover, practice helps you broaden the networks of neurons related to your chunk. As Steven Pinkers might say, it helps certain patterns of neurons become accustomed to firing at the same time.

Whew. And that, my friends, is how chunking becomes memory.





Glenn D,“Divided Attention,” February 28, 2010, The Chronicle of Higher Education. http://ow.ly/Av60L

Guida, A., Gobet, F., Tardieu, H., & Nicolas, S. (2012). How chunks, long-term working memory and templates offer a cognitive explanation for neuroimaging data on expertise acquisition: A two-stage framework. Brain and Cognition, 79(3), 221-244. doi: 10.1016/j.bandc.2012.01.010.

Miller G. A. (1956). The magical number seven plus or minus two: some limits on our capacity for processing information. Psychol. Rev. 63, 81-97 10.1037/h0043158 [PubMed: 13310704]

Oakley B, class notes via Coursera.



Wolverine gif: ©?  http://ow.ly/AuSC2

Neurons firing together: © Kevin Mendez, 2014. Coursera- learning how to learn.

Baby at the outlet: © Eprom. Dreamstime.com

Lang Lang at the Piano: © Neale Haynes, 2010. http://ow.ly/Av2Qt

Chunk like a champion: ©Notre Dame, originally. Probably. Modified, natch.

Jeff Koons – Balloon Dog (Magenta). Via Wikipedia – http://ow.ly/AuNg3


Ecstatic About the Glymphatic

Let’s talk about sleep (baby, let’s talk about you and me, let’s… no? no. fine). More specifically, let’s talk about how sleep is très importante, because the waking world is TOXIC.

Wrong Toxic

Yeah, I went there.

Really, though. Research done by a Whole Buncha Scientists™ has shown that the very state of being conscious results in a buildup of harmful waste proteins (which our prof called “metabolic toxins”). Being awake = harmful to your health? Huge surprise, I know. Next time your parents/dogs/kids/significant-others try to get you out of bed, this offers the perfect justification for nailing them in the face with a pillow.

Unfortunately, the waking world is full of fun stuff to do, so we have to engage with it sometime. Luckily, our bodies have this amazing way of dealing with brain toxins- it’s called sleep.

Well, it’s actually called the glymphatic system, but that sounds so much less appealing. The glymphatic system is kind of like the brain’s plumbing apparatus; at night, when we sleep, it pumps cerebral spinal fluid (CSF) through the brain’s tissue, flushing the waste toxins right out of the brain. To facilitate the process, your brain cells actually reduce in size so that the waste can be removed more effectively.

Our brains actually shrink during sleep- how crazy is that? I knew there was a reason I’m not a morning person.

Dr. Maiken Nedergaard, a professor of neurosurgery at the University of Rochester and author of the study in Science, says that this could explain “why we don’t think clearly after a sleepless night and why a prolonged lack of sleep can actually kill an animal or a person.”

So if this whole removal of brain-killing toxins thing is so important, why doesn’t our slacker-ass glymphatic system work more than a handful of hours overnight? Well, apparently the whole shrinking your brain and circulating CSF through your brain to your liver thing takes a lot of energy. The glymphatic system is minimally active when we’re awake, but it’s ten times more active when we’re asleep. Check out the image for a look at the difference.

courtesy of The Independent
The Glymphatic System at Work

Dr. Nedergaard notes: “You can think of it like having a house party. You can either entertain the guests or clean up the house, but you can’t really do both at the same time.”

At least, not without inviting the glymphatic system, as well. Talk about a party pooper.



Side note: The articles at NPR and The Independent (below) talk a bit more about the implications of all this for diseases like Alzheimer’s, which may result, in part, from a build-up of certain kinds of metabolic waste in the brain. For my purposes, I’m going to hold off until next post, and then muse on how this may all affect the process of learning and the recording of memory.



1. NPR: http://ow.ly/AfFX8

2. The Independent: http://ow.ly/AfG1d



1. Toxic: http://ow.ly/Ai86e

2. Glimpse of the Glymph: http://ow.ly/AfG1d



I know I said that the next blog post would be about sleep, but I read this article in the BBC today (http://ow.ly/AeYgh), and was delighted by how well it related to things I’ve been learning about focused/diffused thinking. I mean, yawning as a brain-hack to higher function of attention?

Back up.

In class last week, Prof. Oakley differentiated between two modes of thinking: focused and diffused. When your mind is focused, you’re concentrating intently on trying to learn/understand, and your thoughts move smoothly along familiar pathways. Diffused thinking, on the other hand, is a broader, more creative mode of thought (similar to daydreaming). Diffused thinking allows you to draw new parallels, make new neural connections; focused thinking drills those thoughts into your mind and cements the neural pathways.

The two modes seem wonderfully complementary… but the downside is that you cannot be in both modes at the same time; being in one mode necessarily limits your access to the other. It’s not always easy to switch modes, either (as testified by anyone who’s tried to answer a question from a chatty roommate while “in the zone,” or tried to break out of an in-class daydream to answer a question from a professor). Some of the great artists and thinkers tried to more perfectly utilize both modes by building their own mind-traps.

Salvatore Dali, for example, used to daydream with a set of keys held loosely in his hand. As he drifted toward sleep, his hand would loosen, dropping the keys on the floor and startling him awake. He could then quickly take advantage of the thoughts and images he had had while daydreaming, before they slipped out of his working memory in sleep. Thomas Edison did the same thing with a set of loose ball bearings. Even today, numerous creative specialists advise placing pen and paper nearby when you go to bed, so that you can capture any thoughts that come to you as you drift in and out of the diffuse mode near sleep.

David Gahr/Getty Images
Dali: the man wears a moustache like it’s a verb. (David Gahr/Getty Images)

Anyway. All this is to say that one of the keys to creative thinking and analogical learning is the ability to switch between the diffuse and focused modes of thinking.

And now, scientists may have the way to create this key: yawning.

Say what?

I’m serious. Recent research by Andrew C. Gallup and Omar T. Eldakar (http://ow.ly/Af8at) suggests that yawning may serve a thermoregulatory function in human beings. I.e., your brain heats up, so you yawn. The rush of blood caused by your flexing jaw combines with the cool air in your sinuses to turn down the cranial thermostat… coincidentally (or not) also flushing your brain with cerebrospinal fluid that washes away some of the somnogenic factors like prostaglandin D(2) and adenosine, among others (see: Walusinkski, http://ow.ly/Af7Vl).

So what does this mean for thinking? According to Gallup and Eldakar, “yawning actually serves to maintain focus and attention, thereby antagonizing sleep” (p6). By cooling you down and flushing neuromodifiers like adenosine out of your system, yawning helps you transition more quickly from a sleepy, diffuse-thinking state into a more wakeful, focused one. It’s like a brain hack- a shortcut allowing you to bypass the dreamy moments when you might forget your diffusely-inspired epiphanies and go straight to the process of recording your brilliance for posterity.

(Though you may never achieve the heights of effervescent moustachery exhibited by the thinking-mode masters of yore. )

How can we practically take advantage of this research? Well, next time that professor interrupts your deliciously dreamy diffuse imaginings in class, give her a big old yawn in the face. She’ll understand that you’re just flushing your neocortex and cooling down in order to give her question all of the focused attention it deserves.


In watching this first week’s lectures, it struck me that I don’t even know, really, what “learning” is. Acquisition of knowledge or skills- sure, sure. I get it. And “memory” is the faculty by which our mind stores and remembers that shiny new knowledge and those super-groovy skills. Gotcha.

But biologically speaking, what are learning and memory- and how do they relate?

From the little I’ve gleaned from this week, and with virtually no background in the subject area, it looks to me as though learning is all about making connections.

(Muy simplistic, I know. But I’m backed up by this excellent image from the journal, Science, showing the differences in an animal brain before learning a new task and after the task had been learned and the animal had slept. The little white arrows are newly-formed synapses on one dendritic branch of a neuron. More synapses = more connections, amiright? ::grumble call me simplistic grumble grumble::)

Guang Yang et al. Sleep promotes branch-specific formation of dendritic spines after learning, Science 344, 1173 (2014).
Guang Yang et al. Sleep promotes branch-specific formation of dendritic spines after learning, Science 344, 1173 (2014).

So that’s learning. Glad I got that sorted. But what steps are required to create all of those adorable new neural gateways?

In his article, “How Memory Works,” Dr. Richard C. Mohs speaks of memory more as a process than as a thing that can be “good” or “bad.” (There goes my excuse for forgetting peoples’ names.) This process consists of three steps: encoding, storage, and retrieval.



Encoding is a “biological phenomenon, rooted in the senses, that begins with perception.” (Break for heated Cartesian debate… aaaaaaaand done.) I’d love to quote the entire page here- it’s full of delicious details regarding synapses connecting nerve cells, electrical pulses triggering the release of neurotransmitters, neurotransmitters diffusing and connecting neuron to neuron- but it’d take too long, and I’m lazy. (One of the many excellent reasons to take this class- more efficient learning equates to more free time in which to laze!)

One thing about encoding that Dr. Mohs makes special note of: it’s unknown, at this time, whether the stimuli that sometimes start the encoding process are screened out during the sensory input stage, or only after the hippocampus and frontal cortex have processed the stimuli’s significance. If anyone knows of any other research in this area, I’d love to know more about it! I wonder sometimes whether this may be one of the places where emotion can play a subliminal role- highlighting the importance of a certain kind of stimulus in such a way that reinforces its perceptual encoding. Hm.



Anyway, encoding is one thing, but storage is another. Storage seems to be divided into short-term and long-term memory (is anyone else having flashes like this? –> )

Thank you, http://catcode.com/fanime2011/2361_teh_cosplay.jpg
Thank you, http://catcode.com/fanime2011/2361_teh_cosplay.jpg

Anyway. ROM and RAM aside, short-term memory is the telephone number you mutter to yourself over and over again as you scramble to get your phone out of your pocket; long-term memory is knowing what a phone is. Kind of. ::grumble grumble call me simplistic grumble::

One of the most important thing about long-term memory- and the thing that’s been emphasized again and again in the course so far- is that it relies on repetition, utilization, and cross-referencing. Connection! The more connections you can make between new information and old information, the easier it is to remember the new. I’m much more likely to remember a tail-gating jerk’s license plate number if the last four digits of the plate are the same as the year that Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Um. For example.



This seems to be the main problem for most people. I, as previously mentioned, have long blamed my “terrible memory” for my complete inability to remember the names of people I met five minutes ago. Dr. Mohs, in his role as disapproving auntie at the town meet-n-greet, sniffs at my excuse and counters with Science: “If you do have trouble remembering something- assuming you don’t have a physical disease- it’s usually not the fault of your entire memory system but an inefficient component of one part of your memory system.” That’s like a neurological double-whammy combo of ‘did you get dropped on your head as a child?’ and ‘well maybe if you learned to pay attention.’ Snap, son.

Still, Dr. Mohs helpfully points out three things that need to happen in order for an individual to successfully remember a skill or piece of knowledge:

  • Registration
  • Retention
  • Retrieval

Over the next few weeks (to be covered by the next several blog posts), I hope to learn some actionable techniques and practices that will address the component failures that lead to ineffective learning and inaccessible memories. The first one, one we’ve covered already in class and which will be the subject of my next blog post, and which I very much look forward to putting into practice in a handful of hours:




“All our knowledge has its origins in our perception.” -Leonardo da Vinci

(But how does that perception turn into knowledge?)

I’m starting this blog as a way to track my progress through Prof. Terrence Sejnowski and Prof. Barb Oakley’s class, Learning How to Learn. While the blog is, admittedly, part of the final assignment for a class, I’m hoping that it can also serve as a resource for others- an archive of academic and journalistic articles on neuroscience and the processes of cognition, anecdotes about the difficulty (or, optimistically, success!) of incorporating memory techniques into everyday life, and even essays into the implications of contemporary neuro-scientific findings for other fields of study.

At the very least, I’m hoping that putting this all in a blog will mean that I’ll stop finding scraps of scribble-filled paper stuck in the zipper of my purse or crumpled beneath my pillow. I don’t know much about memory and cognition, but I’m guessing that the process of learning is not much enhanced by scrawling ideas on old receipts and tossing them about like confetti.

I welcome recommendations for news articles, scholarly journals, books, and blogs, and I hope that this blog serves (eventually) as a wonderful resource for those interested in neurology, epistemology, hermeneutics(ology), and the process of turning perception into knowledge!