Posted by: talesfromtheid | May 25, 2010

Memories Are Made of This

Rusiko Bourtchouladze: Memories Are Made of This
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2002. Phoenix paperback, 2003. 232 pp.

Instructional theorists have all kinds of ideas about how people learn, about how to train people, and how to present information to enable the best learning and retention. But we don’t really know how the brain works. It’s as if we tried to learn how a car works by examining working automobiles, but without ever opening up the hood to see the engine. We’d be able to learn a few things—how the steering wheel works, the functions of the brake, clutch, and gas pedals, and so on—but would we ever be able to derive the principles of the internal combustion engine this way? In order to build a car, or even tune up the performance of an existing car, we’d really want to understand how the engine works.

Fortunately, judging from the number of books on the subject in the science section at my local bookstore, brain research is a hot topic. Many books, aimed at the lay reader, attempt to summarize what is known about the mind’s engine: the human brain.

Rusiko Bourtchouladze’s book, Memories Are Made of This, is a case in point. Bourtchouladze is the Director, Model Systems Department, at Helicon Therapeutics and a visiting scientist at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Her research interest is in understanding the “biological building blocks of memory,” which is actually the subtitle of her book. Memories Are Made of This is part of the “Maps of the Mind” series edited by neurologist Steven Rose. Bourtchouladze’s book is the second book that I’ve read from this series, the other being James McGaugh’s Memory and Emotion: The Making of Lasting Memories. Both books were very interesting. “Maps of the Mind” looks like a series worth investigating further.

Bourtchouladze takes us chronologically through the history of ideas and research about memory. Beginning with ancient cultures who thought writing was a bad idea because it would allow men’s memories to atrophe, she gets us quickly to Ebbinghaus’s pioneering research into the memorization of nonsense syllables, and on into her own current research into the way genes code for the biological mechanisms of memory. Throughout this journey, she focuses on the experiments, so that we learn not only what is known about memory, but how we know it.

After a review of many high-level basics that would be familiar to most instructional designers who’ve taken an introductory instructional theory class, Bourtchouladze gets to the main thrust of her book: the biological basis of memory. Here, the key neurological components are the hippocampus and the amygdala. Bourtchouladze relates the many ingenious experiments with mice that established the central role of the hippocampus in spatial learning. Similarly, she covers in some detail the experiments which show the amygdala’s  role in emotional learning.

In the final section of the book, she explains a little about her recent research into the connection between gene expression and the biological mechanisms of memory.

In any book which tries to condense extremely detailed, complex science down to a nontechnical level, there is the risk that so much detail will be lost as to make the discussion that’s left practically meaningless. That does happen on occassion in Memories Are Made of This, especially in the genetics section at the end. But by and large, Bourtchouladze does an admirable job of explaining the science without overwhelming the reader.

As instructional technologists work on the problem of learning from the top down, and neuroscientists like Bourtchouladze tackle the problem from the bottom up, we can look forward to the day when the knowledge uncovered by the two groups meets in the middle. Then we’ll have a complete end-to-end understanding of how learning happens, from presentation straight down to the neurological and neurochemical changes that the learning induces in the learner’s brain. We’ll finally know how the engine works. Then we can begin the work of turbocharging it in earnest.

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