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Taking the time out to pause and reflect on what we know may be more important than we think, when it comes to strengthening and consolidating new memory.

It’s been known for some time that daydreaming is highly beneficial for retaining information and strengthening memories. Based on the Hebbian principle that neurons that fire together, wire together, recollecting ideas and thoughts is a great way to mentally rehears and strengthen those synaptic connections.

A new study has revealed how it is using the right type of mental “time-out” that makes the difference for future learning. It used to be thought that reactivating old memories could potentially interfere with the formation of new ones. But it seems not necessarily so, and in some cases, replaying previous thoughts appears to prepare the brain for more effective learning.

In the study two groups were given two tasks where they had to memorise different series of photo pairs with a rest in between the two tasks. They were allowed to think about anything they chose in the mental break. The researchers found (using brain scans) that those who used the down time to reflect on what they had previously learned did better on the tests, especially if there was a loose connection between the two tasks given overlapped.

One of the authors Preston explains it this way.
Imagine the goal is to teach how neurons communicate in the human brain and the similarity to how a power grid works.
By asking students first to think about what they already know about electricity first and then provide the information about neurons, it makes it easier for the brain to embed that new knowledge into what you knew before.

As Preston says “nothing happens in isolation”. “When you are learning something new, you bring to mind all the things you know that are related to that new information.”

This technique could be used for children and adult learners alike to make learning more effective. It’s given me some great ideas.

How do you see this as being helpful in your daily role at work?



M. L. Schlichting, A. R. Preston. Memory reactivation during rest supports upcoming learning of related content. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2014; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1404396111

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, podcaster, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book 'Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life' (Wiley) is available online and at all good bookstores.

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