Had this article go up yesterday over at Scientific American. It was a fun piece to do because I got to revisit one of the most deeply fascinating questions in all of science: how do the basic electrical and chemical exchanges that occur in our brains produce the infinitely complicated experience of being alive?
Seriously: think about it. An electric pulse moves through a neuron, which then shoots some chemicals across a junction that tell the neurons around it to do the same or not. And from that, we get the full spectrum of human experience: joy, anger, anxiety, gratitude; the impulse to dance or sing or laugh or cry.
From that, we can call up the face (and voice! and smell!) of a loved one long-passed, and then summon all of the love and pain and nostalgia that goes with it. From that we get hope and hatred and longing and fear.
We don’t really know. We keep asking; we keep scratching our way toward the answer. But it’s still a mystery.
Anyway, this particular piece was about memory and how we store it. Some scientists from The Salk Institute have unearthed another layer of complexity, and in so doing, have figured out that the brain’s storage capacity is actually much greater than we thought. Good to know. But, as Paul Reber, a neuro-psych guy from Northwestern University explained for me, we shouldn’t get so hung up on the capacity question. Because the real question is not how much. The real question is still how.
Some additional reading for the curious:
- In a 2012 Nature study, scientists showed that memories reside in specific brain cells.
- In a 2014 Neuron study, scientists used celebrity photos to watch how memories form in the human brain:
- In a 2015 Science study, scientists figured out how mysterious holes in neurons may help store long-term memories.
- And if you don’t feel like reading any of these, here’s another video where-in Antonio Damasio explains, broadly, how memory works: