Making Touching Memories

In this post I will talk about Eichenbaums work on time cells, linking his research to practical consequences in an educational context.


1. Learning experiences in anthropology, psychology and philosophy

In an earlier post I suggested, that memory functions are inhanced by physical experience. I used the term „touch“ for these, drawing on the work of Ashley Montagu.
Physical experience, I argued, can take the form of visiting a place. So by travelling to Edinburgh, the place of my university, I tried to link the knowledge I will gain from my studies to the place, as such a visit is being defined by the aspects of place and time.

The importance of physcical experience to enhance memory functions is also supported by psychologists as Vera Birkenbiehl , who argues that we need to have learning experiences involving practical participation instead of only focussing on theoretical memorisation.

Philosophers such as Richard David Precht take a similar approach, by arguing from his respective perspective, that learning taking place in specific situations is not only how we as a species have always learned, but are programmed to learn.


2. Learning experiences in neurology

From a neurological perspective, the work of Howard Eichenbaum seems to support this claim. He talks about of the working processes involved in memory making in the brain. The neurons involved in this process fire when an animal (like a human or a rat) experiences something. These cells can, as new research has shown, can be either place cells, forming memories of the place where the experience happened, or time cells, forming memories related to the time when the experience happened:

“It is generally thought that the mechanism for spatial representation in the hippocampus involves place cells, which are the principal neurons of the hippocampus that whire when an animal occupies a particular location in an environment. In striking similarity, recent evidence shows that there are also hippocampal ‘time cells’ that fire when an animal is at a particular moment in a temporally structured experience.” (p. 732)

This is „how representations of time and space cooperate to organize the contents of memories.” (p. 732)

The recent discovery of time-cells helps understanding how memories are made and can be improved. Accordingly these neural connections are formed not only in situations in which the main aspects of the learning experience are of a spacial and temporal nature, like e.g. learning to ride a bike, but also on learning situations were the aim and task is mainly to study and remember theoretical information, as is usually the case in academic learning. The information stored by and in time cells can be tied to a very concrete situation and also to abstract concepts and similarities between a number of presumably unconnected experiences:

“These studies show that time-cell sequences can reflect both unique memories and common elements between memories, and suggest that these patterns drive accurate memory performance.” (p.738)

This mirrors research done assessing the effect of learning at home, yet taking exams at university. It could he shown that it is easier to recollect information from our brains when the act of recollection is situated in a place equivalent to the place where those memories were formed. So ideally, we would either take tests at home or learn in the lecture hall where the test is to be held. (While I am trying to dig up the actual paper on this, I would appreciated being pointed to this particular article.)

The cells involved in memory-making do however not only store memories of time and place.
“It may be more productive to think of hippocampal principal neurons as multidimensional, in the sense that they encode time and place along with other relevant spatial and non-spatial features of ongoing experience.” (p. 738)
“There is now compelling evidence that firing sequences of time cells develop with learning, are memory specific and predict the accuracy of subsequent memory across a broad variety of tasks.” (p. 740)
So it might be suggested that learning in an environment or situation which helps the neurons to form spatial and time connections, an environment or situation in which the neurons basically fire more actively, the memories formed, the connections which are being established are richer and stronger. And additionally, the memories formed connect with other memories, made before or after this experience, in total forming a rich network of memories, which is capable of storing and recollecting a large variety of information.


3. Applying neurology to pedagogy

What does this mean for online learning? If we learn at home, the information of time and space stored in our brains and connected to our particular learning memory do not substantially differ from the memories stored in time cells and space cells we form performing any other act at home, like drinking coffee or doing the washing. Establishing time and space connections in our brain which are (possibly exclusively) linked to the actual learning, our pearning performance might improve. Practically this could mean that it is usefull to designate a specific place and time for our lesrning, which differs from other tasks we do. A lecture hall at university or a classroom at school is precisely this sort of environment. Our living room is possibly not.

So by learning online, we might deny the brain the memory enhancing functions of experience of place and time. Literature in form of text is not only devoid of human contact and interaction. It is also devoid of concrete experience to a large extend, as it frees the individual from time and space, enabling them to learn whenever wherever. So our brains are possibly not provided with the necessary new and exclusive information of time and space, which would make it easier for us to retrieve the new learned information, i.e. the contents of the literature.

So how can online environments approach this neurological dilemma?

Situating learning in virtual experiences might be one way to adress this problem. By situating learning in online experiences like Minecraft, we are given a location which we experience in a timely sequence. Although we might still be sitting in our private living room, our brains are focussed not on the room we are physically in, but the space we are in virtually.

To what extend this virtuality can trick the brain and produce the same effective results as real physical experience, I do not know.
It might be suggested, though, that while reading at home can still be a usefull learning technique, virtual environments can provide a helpful addition to the learning process.
It does however seem feasable, that learning completely devoid of real physical experience defined by real places at specific times and which include real, i.e. physical personal interaction with others, should still be part of every learning arrangement and should be implemented even in courses delivered mostly online.

How this can be put into practice in the vast field of online education needs to be researched.



Eichenbaum, H. (2014). Time cells in the hippocampus: A new dimension for mapping memories. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 2014.

Montagu, A. (3rd ed 1986). Touching: The Human Significance of the Skin. William Morrow Paperbacks.

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