How to Succeed Without Really Trying

Relaxation makes you smarter

Posted Oct 23, 2012

I wrote an earlier post on how sleeping after learning something improves memory for what you’ve just learned. I imagine if you told your boss about that and begged for a cot in your office, that you’ve been less than successful.

But guess what: You don’t have to sleep to enhance your memory. Brief wakeful resting has similar effects. And I’m talking about merely 10 minutes of rest. And about memories that last for a week!

In a recent study reported in Psychological Science, Michaela Dewar and her colleagues presented short stories aurally to listeners, asking them to try to remember as many details as possible (1). Immediately afterwards, they were asked to recall all the details they could. Then for ten minutes, half of them performed a visual, nonverbal spot-the-difference task unrelated to the story, while the other half were asked to rest quietly a darkened room with their eyes closed. Fifteen to thirty minutes later, when they were given a surprise memory test, the people who had rested remembered significantly more of the story than those who had performed the visual task. And when given another surprise memory test a full week later, the resters still performed better than those who had been kept busy after the task. The difference was big: Even though memory naturally declined over the seven-day period, the people who had rested remembered as much of the story after seven days as the people who had performed the visual task had remembered after only thirty minutes!

The authors attribute the enhanced performance to greater memory consolidation. Research shows that neural activity associated with recent behavior is replayed (“practiced”?) during states of wakefulness in both rats (2) and people (3) and that the amount of this neural activity is associated with the degree of memory retention. This replay of neural activity is automatic and unintentional, and it is more likely to occur during resting than when the brain is focused on an unrelated activity.

The people who rested in Dewar’s study weren’t consciously trying to think about the story. Resting apparently allowed the neural activity to occur in their brains more easily than performing another task did.

So what does this mean if you’re to cramming new information into every pause, break or hiatus in your day? It means you’re selling yourself short. If you want to remember more of what you’re reading, listening to, or watching, don’t immediately switch to the next thing, the way we do when we click on a new link after reading something on-line or check our messages the minute a meeting ends. Take a brief break and allow your brain to consolidate what you’ve just learned. You don’t have to work on it; you just have to let it happen.

. . . . .

Maybe it makes sense, brain-wise, that college students walk across campus between classes. If they leave their earbuds out, maybe their learning will benefit.

. . . . . 

So, give yourself a break today . . . and don't feel guilty about it!

(1) Dewar, M., Alber, J., Butler, C., Cowan, N., & Della Sala, S. (2012). Brief wakeful resting boosts new memories over the long term. Psychological Science, 23, 955-960.

(2) Carr, M. F., Jadhav, S. P., & Frank, L. M. (2011). Hippocampal replay in the awake state: A potential substrate for memory consolidation and retrieval. Nature Neuroscience, 14, 147-153.

(3) Peigneux, P., Orban, P., Balteau, E., Degueldre, C., Luxen, A., Laureys S., & Maquet, P. (2006). Offline persistence of memory-related cerebral activity during active wakefulness. PLoS Biology 4(4), e100.

About the Author

Joanne Cantor, Ph.D.

Joanne Cantor, Ph.D., Professor Emerita at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is the author of Conquer CyberOverload: Get More Done, Boost Your Creativity, and Reduce Stress.

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