Essay 1  10/08/03:   Cognitive Processing, Learning Behavior, Memory

A Relationship Between Knowledge and Learning:

A better understanding of how our memory systems cooperate, and how they help us learn, should
allow us insight into how to use them more effectively.  

Humans, like many types of animals, have two types of memory, long-term and short-term. Short-term
memories, or perceptions that you have recently experienced, have to be transferred into long-term
storage if you want to be able to recollect them. If you do not complete this transfer within a few
seconds, the data from your short-term memory will be erased. Short-term memories decay in less
than 10 seconds. Our minds probably erase these short-term memory stores to conserve mental
resources and delete excess information that is not essential for survival.

There are two methods of remembering short-term memories before they are erased. Basically, both
methods are ways to associate the new knowledge with past knowledge. One method is utilizing
mnemonic devices. Mnemonics is a structured way to code data like ideas and concepts. It helps us
associate new data with old memories. Another method of memorization is rehearsal. Things like
telephone numbers and the words to songs need to be rehearsed in order to be memorized and
transferred into long term storage. Rehearsal keeps the memory active and available so that you can
form your associations before the information in your short-term memory is lost. If you do not begin
rehearsing what you want to remember within a few seconds it might be too late.

Consider a ten digit number written down on a piece of paper. Most people have to read and then
rehearse this number in order to “save” it for later recall. Some people remember the sound, some
remember the numbers as concepts, and some remember the way that the numbers look.  All of these
memorization techniques involve associating new data with things that one already knows. Without our
previous knowledge of numbers and sounds the task of memorizing numbers would be considerably
harder. We associate the new data with old data by electronically reconfiguring the neural structures
that are located in the part of the brain that contains our memories, our association cortex. When we
learn something new, we actually change the physical structure of this section of our brain.

Imagine a newborn trying to remember a ten-digit number. He or she has few substantial previous
memories and thus very little old data with which to associate new data. Newborns also do not exhibit
complex task or goal oriented behavior that might organize an effort to try to memorize a sequence of
numbers. They have no memories, except those from the womb, and the learning process is slow and
steady for them. Because they know very little, babies are forced to start their learning process with
the basics. As the amount of information that they know grows and varies, they have more concepts
stored in long-term memory to associate with new information.

Imagine a person with an extensive background in a field like physics. He or she will most probably be
familiar with all of the important terms and concepts that are studied in the field. If this person finds out
a new fact about physics it will be much easier for them, as compared to someone with no background,
to understand this fact, relate to this fact and internalize this fact. The physicist has more informational
anchors about the issue to make the appropriate connections. The person with no background in the
field might forget this new information more readily, or might not be able to internalize it at all because
they have fewer long-term memories with which to associate the new data. This example helps us
understand that the more that one knows, the easier it is for them to learn and retain new information.

Modern-day neurologists tell us that in our lifetimes we will never be able use up all of our capacity for
memory. Most approximations of memory capacity well exceed 10^9 bits of information. I believe that
learning, instead of taking up room in our minds, broadens our knowledge base and creates more
room for other concepts and ideas. If we really do learn by associating new concepts to known ones,
then the constant pursual of knowledge should allow us to increase our knowledge base in an
exponential fashion.

If information that we know about the world around us creates our view of reality, doesn’t the pursuit of
knowledge allow us a more perfect view of our reality?

Association Cortex: noun
Cortical areas of the brain that are not motor or sensory but are thought to be involved in
memory and associations.

Electronic: adj.
Based on, operated by, or otherwise involving the controlled conduction of electrons, or
other charge carriers.

Exponential Growth: noun
Growth that is characterized by ever-increasing, non-linear increment.

Mnemonics: noun (used with a singular verb)
A system developed to improve the memory. A device such as a formula, an analogy or a
rhyme intended to aid retrieval.

Neurology: noun
The medical science that focuses on the nervous system.

Rehearsal: noun
A detailed enumeration or repetition.
Organization for the Advancement of   
Interdisciplinary Learning