Brain Science

To Boost Your Memory, Let Your Mind Wander

To Boost Your Memory, Let Your Mind Wander about undefined
If you want an excuse to be lazy while improving your memory at the same time, I've got some good news for you. As a powerful aid to remembering something that has just occurred, all you need to do is sit in a darkened room, close your eyes, and rest for ten minutes. That's it. The technique was first documented more than a century ago, but it took all this time for scientists to realize the implications of this discovery. Now this simple but potent method for promoting both short and longer-term memory is available to anyone, including those who already suffer with memory loss. Here’s why this simple technique is so powerful. . .

Memory Consolidation

Back in 1900, German psychologists Muller and Pilznecker introduced the concept of memory consolidation. They proposed that new data takes time to fix in the memory. The brain needs calm for several minutes after learning, otherwise less information will be retained. They designed a series of forty experiments to test their theory. In one, for instance, they gave participants a short time to remember a list of nonsense syllables such as pob, zir, pem and fon. Then half the members of the group were given a second list to learn right off the bat, while the other half were given the same list after six minutes of 'wakeful rest'. Over 90 minutes later the participants were tested on what they could recall. The group that took the second test straight away remembered 28% of the syllables on average, but those that had a respite remembered almost 50%. Their work wasn't seriously followed up until neuropsychologist Sergio Delia Sala from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland and Nelson Cowan at the University of Missouri, collaborated in a pioneering study in 2004.

11-Fold Increase in Information Retained

They compared six people aged 25 to 70 who suffered from memory loss due to stroke or head injury, with six healthy control subjects. All twelve listened to a list of 15 words read out to them. Some had to recall what they heard after being kept busy with other tests for ten minutes, while others lay down in a darkened room for the same time period. The difference between the participants who were rested and those whose brains were kept active was considerable. The former were able to remember three times as many words -- almost within range of the healthy controls. In a second part to the study, the participants listened to stories and, sixty minutes later, had to answer questions on what they had heard. Those with memory impairment who were not rested could answer only seven percent of the questions correctly compared to a 79% score among those who were given a period of rest. That’s a staggering eleven-fold increase in retained information. Even among the healthy volunteers, recall was boosted by up to 30%.

It Takes Time to Form Memories

Six follow-up studies have replicated these findings in both young and old as well as those with mild memory loss and early stage Alzheimer's. One of these experiments also demonstrated that a period of rest works for spatial memories, where participants were able to remember the location of different landmarks seven days later. Psychological scientist Michaela Dewar from Heriot-Watt University, Scotland, joined Sala and Cowan for some of their projects. She described the point at which we experience new information as "just at a very early stage of memory formation and that further neural processes have to occur after this stage for us to be able to remember the information at a later point in time. "Our findings support the view that the formation of new memories is not completed within seconds. Indeed our work demonstrates that activities that we are engaged in for the first few minutes after learning new information really affect how well we remember this information after a week." The work of this research group has also been confirmed by Lila Davachi, Associate Professor of Psychology at New York University, who found increased communication between the hippocampus - an important memory center - and parts of the visual cortex during wakeful rest. This resulted in improved recall in test subjects. So if you want to remember the above, you need to walk away from the screen, close the curtains, sit down and do nothing for the next ten minutes. Let peace and quiet help you retain the information.

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