Learning And Memory:  How The Brain Learns New Information

Posted by Kate Myers on May 12, 2016
Kate Myers

Student doing homework on laptop and holding phone 

While doing his homework, Bob read, “Newton was known for writing, ‘If I have seen further, it is only by standing on the shoulders of Giants.’” This wonderful tidbit beelines its way to Bob’s brain, bouncing along a familiar path created from months of studying. The more familiar Bob is with Newton and his writing, the easier it is to file away. But, if he has never heard of Newton before, never studied physics or math, or not read his work, the quote is forging a new road in Bob’s brain. It is a difficult process through a dense jungle of neural networks used to thinking in a particular way. But this new thought will be the first stroke towards Bob understanding and contemplating Newton.

Working Memory

Let’s go back to the formation of the information packet going into Bob’s brain. Ideally, it would be a clean chunk of information, meaning limited sensory information and only the single quote riding along, but often our study and learning spaces are much more stimulating. Envision, if you will, this little information packet as an average Jeep Wrangler with four to five seats. This is the working memory, ferrying information into the brain for filing. In a perfect study environment, those seats are filled with Newton, his quote, and his writing.

The Enemies of Working Memory

If Bob is your average student, he has his favorite music playing over earbuds, his laptop open to three or four pages, his phone pinging every so often, as well as his homework open. Depending on his work environment, he can see other people, hear their conversations, and have any other sense hijack his Jeep to the jungle. There are only four seats and the things he is interested in will get first pick. Most likely that isn’t Newton’s letters.

The Limits of Working Memory

There are only ever four to five seats in the working memory Jeep. Intelligence, learning style, or skill set don’t change the number. All that matters in this segment of the brain is focus. In our analogy, Bob’s focus is picking the passengers catching a ride into his memory. The more of one type of passenger (Newtonian physicists) the bigger colony of information he’ll be able to build in his mind, but he can only do that four to five passengers at a time. The more passengers of one sort, the less likely one of the passengers is going to get lost in transit. They chunk together. In order to focus (pick passengers) and retain information (build a colony), Bob should look at how he set up his study space. Cramming and multitasking will reduce the efficiency of the pioneering thoughts in his brain.

Transition from Working Memory to Long Term Memory

Once the passengers arrive and are sorted into their colonies, Bob’s mind will assess them by strength and categorize them into his long term memory. Strength is determined by how many of the same passenger there is. Strong passengers can be accessed by other colonies and traded, creating thought patterns and links between colonies. Many connected colonies create an active and healthy brain. It is important to note that those thought patterns cannot be simulated by Bob reading someone else’s written thoughts. They just become another passenger into the New World of his mind.

Modern Impediments to Learning Pathways

Today’s technology and the internet provide Bob with easy access to a plethora of information.  This can detract Bob from deep thinking and cognitive development. The ability to access information reduces the need to trade colonists and create a networked mind. Bob can simply bring in a new passenger with the specific answer to the situation. The problem with this is that with every new problem, a new “specialist” will need to be called in. The colonists aren’t encouraged to develop their own connections using lateral thinking and deductive reasoning. As a result of this, ‘overpopulation’ occurs in Bob’s brain. Like having a shop full of tools, but not knowing how to use them, a brain full of facts does not a genius make.


Technology is a Promethean flame, a good thing that brings negative consequences if used thoughtlessly.  Bob has and we have the incredible opportunity, like Newton, to stand on the shoulders of Giants, discover, and create using the incredible network of the mind. First, we need to use more recent technology as a tool, not a replacement for the most incredible invention, the human mind.

 Choosing a School in Tehachapi


Topics: Learning