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What the secrets of the brain reveal about getting it right when you have to

One Key to Having a Good Memory? Knowing When to Rest

Taking a brief wakeful rest makes memories last

Sitting quietly with your eyes closed for just a few minutes can mean the difference between successfully committing important information to mind versus forgetting it. New research published a few weeks ago in the journal Psychological Science shows, counter-intuitively, that one of the best ways to enhance memory is to take a short break after you learn something new.

Why would resting boost memory? According to one popular view, taking a break helps strengthen the trace of what we just learned in mind. When we need to fish the information out at a later point in time, it is easier to retrieve. Scientists have shown in rats, for example, that neural activity immediately after a rat has learned a new piece of information (say a new route that leads to food), looks very similar to the brain activity seen when the rat is actually learning the route in the first place. It’s as if the rat is automatically replaying the new information in his head as a way to reinforce it in mind. Interestingly, scientists have found that this memory replay is more robust during periods of wakeful rest – where the animal is just hanging out, not doing anything in particular.

To test whether or not a brief wakeful rest might also lead to a memory boost in humans (and particularly a boost that lasts across several days), psychologists from the University of Edinburgh, Oxford University, and the University of Missouri ran a simple experiment.

They asked older adult volunteers, ranging in age from 61-81, to take part in two experimental sessions, separated by one week’s time. Older adults constitute a growing part of the population and, as people get older, they frequently complain of memory problems. Thus, it seems especially important to find simple ways to boost these folks’ memories.

Everyone started by hearing a story and then recalling the details of what they had just heard. Next, people were randomly assigned to either engage in wakeful resting, where they were asked to sit quietly for 10 minutes with their eyes closed, or to play a spot-the-difference game. In the game, people tried to figure out  the difference between a pair of pictures that they were viewing. This second game condition was simply designed to busy the mind. A week later everyone was given a surprise recall test for the two stories they had heard. The details of the experiment are actually a little more complex, but this gives you the gist of what happened.

The question was, did people remember more story details when the story was followed by wakeful rest as compared to the spot-the-difference game? The answer: Yes!

Volunteers remembered about 60% of the story when they didn’t rest after hearing it and over 75% of the story details when they did. Even more interesting, only a few people actually reported thinking about the story when they were resting. So, it seems like a wakeful rest helps people commit information to mind, even when they aren’t trying to intentionally rehearse the details of what they just learned.

Whether you are trying to remember information for a test, a pitch to a client, or even a phone message to relay to your spouse, resting for a few moments after you initially commit the information to mind may make the difference between successfully recalling it at a later point in time versus racking your brain to no avail.

In today’s information rich world, there are not that many opportunities to sit back and rest. It seems like we are always being bombarded with some type of information – from our computers or phones. As it happens, information overload has an unexpected cost, it detracts from making memories last.

For more on how to successfully remember information, especially under stress, check out my book Choke!

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Dewar, M. et al. (2012). Brief Wakeful Resting Boosts New Memories Over the Long Term. Psychological Science

Sian Beilock, Ph.D., is a psychology professor at The University of Chicago and an expert on the brain science behind performance failure under pressure.

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