Brainscape Taps Into the Greatest App of All: Your Brain

03/01/2011 11:23 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Ancient Greek and Roman intelligentsia may not have had iPhones but they did have supercomputers. With even basic paper and writing tools expensive to come by, memory, i.e., the brain, provided the most reliable way to capture information for ready usage. Armed with extensive knowledge about the ins and outs of memory, ancient lawyers, businessmen and rhetoricians readily tapped into the brain when we might tap into Google.

These days, the smartphone has become the memory device of choice, with presentation apps that allow you to review your slides in the palm of your hand, and apps like Evernote purporting to help you "remember everything". Apps aren't even necessary: you probably don't know 90% of your friends' phone numbers, but your phone certainly does.

And yet, as quick as it is, your phone works only as fast as your fingers can travel. What do you do when you need information not at your fingertips, but at the tip of your tongue, in the heat of meetings, interviews, tests and other high-pressure situations?

Enter Brainscape. Still in beta, this app provides more than a simple flash card deck system. In a process they call confidence-based repeition, Brainscape intelligently processes each flash card and modifies the repetition pattern based on how well integrated the answer is in your long term memory.

"There have been over 800 studies done on space repetition," Andrew Cohen, CEO of Brainscape told me in a phone interview. "The conclusion is that, more important than the type of media you've used, or mnemonic devices, is the interval of time between each exposure. Brainscape seizes upon that."

Having just moved to Beijing, I tested out Brainscape recently on a tough subject: Chinese characters. With virtually zero cognates with English and a complex writing system that only occasionally suggests pronunciation and content, hanzi (汉字:Chinese writing) made the perfect test case for Brainscape's claims to help me fit new information into my poor, overstimulated brain.

The app itself is simple to use, with one-handed operation useful on a crowded gonggong qiche (公共汽车: public bus). First, I select from the numerous decks developed by Brainscape's language team and download the files to my iPhone. Then, I simply view the word in English and say to myself what I think is the answer in Chinese. I press a button to reveal the answer, which is also spoken aloud by a native speaker. If I'm correct, I don't just mark that I got it right: I mark how well I think I knew the answer on a scale of 1 (Not At All) to 5 (Perfectly).

This latter step is key. Like magic, based on my confidence levels, certain words appear as soon as I seem to have forgotten them. Each time I run the deck, I become more and more confident in the words, and quickly find them etched in my long-term memory. A statistics tool helps me see how much I've progressed over time. It takes just a few more exposures in the real world to truly cement them: happily, each day, more and more signs, menus and Weibo messages that once felt opaque are now richer and comprehensible.

Of course, for language learners, speaking isn't simply about memorizing words and spitting them out. True language success comes with formulating sentences. For this, Brainscape provides a tool they call intelligent cumulative exposure, only available at the moment for those learning Español. Starting with words you know, the app gradually adds unfamiliar words, asking you translate more complex sentences over time.

Mr. Cohen tells me that over the next few months, he plans to develop their web site to allow for greater integration between the iPhone app and the main web site, along with improving the ability to create and share decks. Both of these features -- one structural and one social -- hold great potential for brain nerds, students and professionals alike.

Say, for instance, that you're a software designer pitching a collaboration with an architectural team. To prepare, you first need to strengthen your knowledge of basic architectural terms. You would be able to search Brainscape for experts in this area and then follow them to subscribe to their decks. In between work sessions, you would then run flash cards on your computer, and on the subway ride home, you could catch up on the remainder. After securing the partnership, you could, in turn, share decks with your architectural colleagues, to help them understand the basics of software design.

Of course, true, deep knowledge of a subject or language still requires actively engaging with material and using it in real world scenarios. But it's critical first to develop the vocabulary you need as a foundation -- Brainscape makes that process much easier.

"We want Brainscape to be your personalized flash card stream," Mr. Cohen said. "In the next couple months, it will be easier to access and create content from anywhere. We want to weave our site into the fabric of the web, so any time you need to learn something, you can just 'Brainscape' it."

Amongst my flash cards is the Chinese word for computer, diannao (电脑), which translates literally as "electric brain". In films like The Matrix and Ghost in the Shell, we imagined a world where we could simply upload information from electric brains into organic brains. Until we find a way to plug in a USB port into our our bodies, an app like Brainscape brings us back to that most ancient, powerful and readily-available app of all: the human brain.

Originally from Los Angeles and Manila, artist and designer An Xiao Mina is currently based in Beijing. She blogs regularly at