Neuroscience and Campus – Memory and Place

tower-stair-2Memory has been tethered to place by human evolution. Campuses have been among these places for more than a thousand years.

The Question  As students and teachers swim further into the digital stream of online education and simulated reality, will place continue to matter?

This question has taken me far beyond the disciplines of brick and mortar. Higher education, sociology, cultural anthropology, student life, academic business, learning analytics, neuroscience and artificial intelligence have all been on my reading list.

My research is not complete, but my tentative conclusion:

For centuries, campus has been part of the standard paradigm. It has always been there – a setting, not a participant. The future of the campus in the learning enterprise depends on being re-designed to be an agent, a necessary supportive ingredient, not just being there.

We can see prototypes of this re-design in libraries, classrooms and hybrid learning spaces scattered across the world. William Gibson observed, “The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.”

Neuroscience  Neuroscientists see patterns of place memory far back in the evolution of the human brain. On the savannah human memory was connected to place for survival. Now the connections to place may be more elastic, but they are no less important.

The stories we have told and what we remember have been linked to place, to the geography of experience. We can see evidence of this pattern everywhere, in myth, literature and personal experience. The connection between place and knowing, being able to recall is how the memory palace technique works. The memory palace is a method of linking bits of knowledge to designated place. It relies on our ability to recall information and events in part because they are tied to a location. That is how the human brain has evolved.

In Inquiry by Design, John Zeisel puts it this way:

The context of learning – emotional, state of mind, and physical – are like learning glue. They influence how learning sticks in the mind… When the places in which we learn a subject have more meaning to us, we are better able to recall the subject matter. (p. 149)

Digital Impact  Until quite recently in human experience, being someplace and temporal existence have been bound together. They were one and the same thing. As place and time have become less rigidly linked, our brains allow us to pretend or believe that asynchronous, placeless communication is a form of personal interaction and screen-to-screen is similar to face-to-face.

We are living at a time when place and temporal experience are being severed by the technologies we use. Many forms of learning do not require shared place and time. Students and instructors can be anywhere.

Online courses have been demonstrated to be equal to or better than conventional lecture classes. We also know that blended classes are even better. Blended classes combine face-to-face interaction with online resources – lectures and publications. They utilize the stickiness of the place to enhance learning.

With increasing frequency students and faculty are involved (intentionally and unintentionally) in an experiment about the need for place (shared space and time) in higher education. Classrooms are blended and flipped. Lectures are digitized and packaged. Courses are completely online and asynchronous. Course credit is being granted for MOOC’s. Online graduate programs are becoming commonplace, and millions of square feet of campus space are no longer needed for classes, offices and student support. The students and faculty are simply not there.

Physical Consequences  To the extent that place memory is part of learning, campuses can continue to matter, not because they are beautiful, but because they are neurologically functional. This is what is happening when:

  • classrooms are treated as strategic assets to enhance learning,
  • libraries remove book storage to make way for human interaction and shared experience,
  • hybrid spaces like media commons are added to the traditional complement,
  • makerspaces become part of the pedagogy, and
  • space availability matches the fluidity of demand.

These steps and others lead to the campus being an agent in teaching and learning, not simply a setting – an enhancing infrastructure rather than a passive context. As students and instructors swim further into the digital stream, they will be present on-campus and in-person less frequently, more episodically. The campus that supports this reality is made less rigid by adaptable scheduling and more supportive by design and immersive technologies. These are campuses that are driven by supporting those essential moments of personal experience and interaction, rather than merely providing stage sets and “curb appeal,” focused on outcomes rather than appearance.

Need for Adaptation  The physical consequences of digital transformation are becoming visible and measureable. Campus planners are seeing changing use patterns and expectations for non-traditional learning environments. They have a growing sense that their campuses must be adapted to a changing balance between physical and digital learning. Academics and administrators are usually less aware of the need to respond. Redesign of the campus that evolves to be an active ingredient in learning, tethering memory and learning to place, is the responsibility of all. The need to plan the adaptation is becoming an urgent matter.

This post was inspired by the work of John P. Eberhard, founding president of theAcademy of Neuroscience for Architecture and author of Brain Landscape:  The Coexistence of Neuroscience and Architecture.

CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

2 thoughts on “Neuroscience and Campus – Memory and Place

  1. Thank you for the post! This is a very important subject to me and something I have been reading/studying about. I have presented on this exact topic recently at both DesignDC and ArchEx East. I think that the Campus is not only a place for memory but more importantly creating new knowledge.
    I will be posting my presentation on my website soon.

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