Memory remains elusive, but the search continues

In Theaetetus, Plato likened memory to a wax tablet, which would adopt the image of whatever was impressed upon it. Aristotle is said to have called memory “the scribe of the soul.” Others have viewed memory as a stomach, storehouse or switchboard, while acknowledging that it sometimes seems like a leaky bucket.

St. Augustine and Robert Hooke also thought deeply about memory. But not until the late 1800s did a German psychologist by the name of Hermann Ebbinghaus pioneer the study of memory in an experimental way. To research memory in isolation, Ebbinghaus used himself as a subject. After coming up with a list of nonsense syllables, he memorized series of different lengths, uncovering patterns in the time it takes to learn, relearn and forget.

Well over a century later, memory is far from understood. When former President Barack Obama launched the BRAIN Initiative five years ago (SN: 2/22/14, p. 16), the goal was to support technologies that would, in part, “open new doors to explore how the brain records, processes, uses, stores and retrieves vast quantities of information,” according to the White House. Today, memory seems to fascinate everyone, and the writers at Science News are no exception. 

Laura Sanders updates readers on the hunt for the “engram,” a term coined early in the 20th century to describe the physical trace a memory leaves in the brain. Neuroscientists have yet to find the engram, but they have new notions — and are revisiting old ones. One of those ideas comes from the work of James Vernon McConnell, who reported some six decades ago that memories could somehow be transferred from one flatworm to another.

Over its near-century of existence, Science News has reported regularly on the nature of memory: how to create it, improve it and even, as needed, eliminate it. In 1926, Science News-Letter (the precursor to Science News) offered a series of mnemonic devices to help readers recall specific information. These “memory rimes” included tricks for units of geologic time, the 12 cranial nerves and the value of pi (three ways). And in 1966, the magazine followed up on the experiments that made McConnell famous as the “flatworm man.” Though initially substantiated with RNA extracted from shocked worms and injected into unconditioned ones, the memory transfer findings were questioned by a study the next year. Our pages called it an “antibreakthrough in man’s attempt to understand the way memory works.” Scientists still don’t know what to make of the results.

And so the struggle to understand memory continues. As does the struggle to understand hundreds of other deep topics related to the human mind, the history of life and the evolution of our cosmos. Behavioral sciences writer Bruce Bower covers a study in bonobos that might offer insights into the evolution of human cooperation. Earth and climate writer Carolyn Gramling revisits the Yellowstone supervolcano, peeking into the workings of our planet. Technology writer Maria Temming’s story on smartphones raises important questions about how technology transforms our lives.

There’s a lot to ponder, and a lot more reporting to do. Now, if I could only remember where I left my blue pencil.

Elizabeth Quill is former executive editor of Science News. She's now a freelance editor based in Washington, D.C.

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