Does memory record everything like a video camera? It is not an uncommon belief as it often seems like we can watch our past experiences in our mind like a video. But the answer is no. We don’t record reality exactly as it is. “As humans, we do not store exact copies of experiences in our memory. Rather, we integrate new incoming information from the surroundings in relation to our pre-existing knowledge about the world” (Brod, Werkle-Bergner & Shing, 2013). Instead, the brain makes biological representations of our experiences – among the connections of our brain cells (Kandell et al., 2014). It constructs a representation of reality in our brain. What do we mean the brain physiologically constructs our reality? When we experience something, those experiences are recreated in our brain’s networks (connected brain cells). When we recall an experience, we reactivate the same networks. Our experiences are physiologically reconstructed. “In biological systems, the particularities of experience, that is, interaction with the outside world, must be first abstracted into a manageable number of variables that could be physically represented as an object or state inside the body” (Kukushkin & Carew, 2017).

From a biological perspective, learning involves connections. Making new connections, altering existing ones (strengthening or weakening), and deleting unnecessary ones. The brain’s ability to learn in this manner is called neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is “the capacity of the nervous system to modify its organization” (Sagi et al., 2012). Put another way, “the acquisition of information, or learning, alters the physiological state of certain neurons in ways that encode memory” (Davis & Zhong, 2017). With neuroplasticity, connections among brain cells are constantly being made, altered, and removed throughout our lives. From our understanding of neuroplasticity, we know that learning is an observable biological process. If we could peer inside a brain, we could see it happening – within the brain (among its neurons) connections are being made – structural and functional changes in the brain are taking place. Learning involves changing the brain. This continues until the day we die.


  • Kandel, E. R., Dudai, Y., & Mayford, M. R. (2014). The molecular and systems biology of memory. Cell, 157(1), 163-186.
  • Sagi, Y., Tavor, I., Hofstetter, S., Tzur-Moryosef, S., Blumenfeld-Katzir, T., & Assaf, Y. (2012). Learning in the fast lane: new insights into neuroplasticity. Neuron, 73(6), 1195-1203.
  • Kukushkin, N. V., & Carew, T. J. (2017). Memory Takes Time. Neuron, 95(2), 259-279.


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Science of Learning Concepts for Teachers (Project Illuminated) Copyright © 2020 by Marc Beardsley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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