A student walks into the classroom and seems somewhat distraught. She quietly sits at her desk waiting for class to begin. I look up and greet her and ask her how she is doing; “I’m doing OK, but sometimes I feel my brain is so full of stuff, it’s getting hard to remember everything.” This reminded me of a Far Side comic by Gary Larson of a student coming to class who has an exceptionally small head asking his instructor to be excused since his small brain reached its limit and was “full.”
Our brains consist of about one billion neurons. Each neuron forms about 1,000 connections to other neurons, amounting to more than a trillion connections. If each neuron could only help store a single memory, running out of space would be a problem. You might have only a few gigabytes of storage space, similar to space in an iPod or a USB drive flash drive. Yet neurons combine so that each one helps with many memories at a time, exponentially increasing the brain’s memory storage capacity to something closer to around 2.5 petabytes (or a million gigabytes). For comparison, if your brain worked like a digital video recorder in a television, 2.5 petabytes would be enough to hold three million hours of TV shows. You would have to leave the TV running continuously for more than 300 years to use up all that storage.
But the way we use our brains today is much different compared to how we used our brains 100 years ago. The digital informational age we live in today has radically changed how we think, retain information and communicate with each other. The interlinking of humanity began with the emergence of language and now has progressed to the point where information can be transmitted to anyone, anywhere, and at the speed of light. We hear more and more about the global network, linking the billions of minds together in a single system. It’s beginning to sound more like our planet (Gaia) developing her own nervous system. The parallels between this global brain and the evolution of our own brain hold many similarities.
The WWW has become the repository for all human knowledge. Data is not located in any single place but is distributed among tens of millions of host computers across the planet. There are many similarities in how the WWW and our brains function. A link on the hundreds of billions of pages on the web will call up some or associated page, just as human recall may take the form of a thought, a visual image, a sound, or some other modality, a link on the web may call up a text, images, sounds, video, or some combination of them.
So what does this have to do with a student who claims their brain is too full to learn anything else? Well, it not about not having enough memory to remember things, but it may actually be the inability at times to process excessive amounts of information presented in this technological world due to lack of learning how to use more effective memory skills. Early studies showed that people could remember a lot, but it was assumed that we did it by remembering abstract descriptions without too many details, but given the right setting, the human brain can record an amazing amount of information. Remembering details becomes more effective when conscious reminders are given. Telling a student to actively try to remember details and giving them familiar examples which draw upon their previous memory or understanding reinforces memory and promotes more learning. Like the computer which relies on semblances of information so does our brain. To prove this in the classroom, I give students a simple memory exercise. I display 20 random objects on the projected screen and give students 1 minute to memorize all 20 objects displayed. Most students remember about half of the objects shown and seem disappointed in the results. I then instruct the students to make up a story for the next different 20 objects shown on the screen and see if their memory improves. Most students are able to remember the 20 objects with 80% to 90 % accuracy. It’s the ability to draw from our own experience and associations that our memory relies on.
Yes, technology has changed the way we live, communicate, and learn, but equally important, technology has changed the way we think. The notion of how we develop more effective learning skills and how we can expand our memory may be in our in our understanding of how technology is creating what some refer to as “The Global Brain.”
Just where this digital revolution will take us is up for discussion. Let’s remember that just 15 years ago when the WWW was just starting, no one realized the impact it would have on human society. Yet today we are able to see the changes it has already made in our world. As we encourage our students to learn and think for themselves, synthesize information and form new associations, let’s not forget this is what technology should support and we as educators should apply this technology knowing it will affect not only our students but teaching as a whole