How Plastic is Your Memory?

In today’s class, students learned how memories are formed and stored in the brain by strengthening connections between brain cells. They learned a new task that requires both visual and motor processing in the brain: how to hit a target with beanbags while wearing prism goggles. Students first learned how to toss beanbags at a target on the ground and to hit the target consistently. With the goggles, the target appears shifted relative to its real position. Humans are able to adapt quickly to this new information, however, and learn to hit the target while wearing the goggles. They also quickly unlearn the shift, and go back to hitting the target normally, when the goggles are removed. Ask your student how easy it was for him or her to learn the task and return to normal!

These changes in skill are due to changes in connections between the brain cells (called neurons) that govern vision and the brain cells that control movement. Neurons connect with each other at small gaps called synapses, and they send chemical signals called neurotransmitters across these gaps. Synapses that are used during repeated, successful practice get stronger, and send a stronger signal, with more neurotransmitter. Synapses that are not used are weakened and send a weaker signal.

Although all parts of the brain contain neurons, and can learn, different parts of the brain are needed to learn different things. To learn our beanbag throwing procedure today required making connections between neurons in visual areas of the brain and neurons in motor areas of the brain. These connections are made in the cerebellum. This type of learning can often take place without conscious thought, and remembering how to do this skill is called procedural memory. Another kind of memory, called declarative memory, takes place in another part of the brain called the hippocampus. Declarative memory is needed to remember experiences and facts.

Additional Information

Read about an amnesia patient, H.M. After surgery to treat severe and debilitating epilepsy, H.M. lost his ability to form new memories about events or experiences, but was still able to learn new motor skills:

And practice your declarative memory skills by coming up with new ways to remember a list of words in our Follow-up Activity, “Your Incredible Memory.”


Aprendizaje y Memoria

En la clase del día de hoy, los estudiantes aprendieron  que nuestros recuerdos se construyen y almacenan en nuestro cerebro al fortalecerse las conexiones entre células. Aprendimos a realizar una nueva tarea que requiere del procesamiento tanto visual como motor en cerebro. La tarea consistió en tirar al blanco con bolsas de frijoles mientras usábamos unos lentes con prismas que distorsionaban nuestra visión. Primero los estudiantes practicaron tirando las bolsas de frijoles hasta darle al blanco. Luego se pusieron los lentes, con los cuales el blanco “se ve” desplazado de su posición verdadera. Los humanos somos capaces de adaptarnos rápidamente a la información nueva, sin embargo, debemos aprender de nuevo cómo darle al blanco usando estos lentes. Después, cuando nos sacamos los lentes, debemos “desaprender” que hay un desplazamiento en el blanco para lograr tirar las bolsas de frijoles de manera normal. Pregúntale a su hijo o hija cuán fácil fue para él o ella aprender y desaprender la tarea.

Los cambios en nuestra habilidad están dados por cambios en las conexiones entre células (llamadas neuronas) involucradas en la visión y entre las células del cerebro que controlan nuestro movimiento. Las neuronas se conectan entre sí a través de la sinapsis, que es un pequeño espacio entre las células, por donde envían señales químicas, llamadas neurotransmisores. Las sinapsis que se utilizan exitosamente durante el aprendizaje, se fortalecen y por lo tanto envían señales más fuerte, liberando mayor cantidad de neurotransmisores. Las sinapsis que no se utilizan se debilitan, enviando señales más débiles.

A pesar que todas las partes del cerebro contienen neuronas que pueden aprender, distintas partes se necesitan para aprender diferentes cosas. Por ejemplo, en la actividad de hoy, donde aprendimos a tirar al blanco, se fortalecieron conexiones entre neuronas de la áreas visuales y motoras del cerebro y del cerebelo. Este tipo de aprendizaje se realiza sin un esfuerzo consciente y se denomina “memoria procedural” o de procedimientos. Otro tipo de memoria, es la declarativa, la cual se forma en otra parte del cerebro llamada hipocampo. Este tipo de memoria es necesaria para recordar nuestra experiencia y datos.

Información adicional: Lea sobre el paciente H.M que quedó con amnesia después de una cirugía para tratar su epilepsia. H.M perdió su habilidad para formar nuevas memorias sobre eventos y datos, pero siguió siendo capaz de aprender nuevas tareas motoras:

También puede reforzar su memoria declarativa al probar distintas técnicas para recordar una lista de palabras. Esta es la actividad de seguimiento para los estudiantes denominada “Tu memoria increíble”.


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Lauren Koppel

Lauren earned a Bachelor’s degree with a double major of Biology and Psychology from Clark University, and a Master of Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. During her undergraduate years, she worked in a evolutionary neurobiology lab that studied the neural development of annelids (marine worms), with a focus on the sox family of genes. Lauren loves learning about how the world works (including everything from biology to chemistry to engineering), and is passionate about sharing that knowledge and enthusiasm with others. In the past, she has interned at the Museum of Science, where she educated learners of all ages through hands-on activities, games, and experiments. Other science education organizations with which Lauren has worked include The People’s Science, EurekaFest, and Eureka! of Girls Inc. of Worcester. Currently she lives in Boston, where devotes her free time to playing Quidditch, reading sci-fi novels, playing her ukulele, and enjoying all the culinary delights the city has to offer.

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