Rest to Learn (9/3/12)
Want to Learn? Rest
What’s the best way to remember a story? It may be to close your eyes and daydream.
That’s the conclusion of a study of Michaela Dewar at the Edinburgh University. She looked at men and women 61-87 in relatively good health, asking what improved memory.
One answer – not thinking about what you were asked to remember.
Those who “rested” by going into a dark room, told to think about anything they liked, did far better remembering in both their short and long term memory than those asked to do a visual matching test.
The brain is always working – even when we don’t think it doing anything.
Like in sleep. Yet in this study the memory advantages of sleep were matched by simply mentally resting for 10 minutes.
We regenerate and reinvent the brain – especially at rest.
What Was the Study Trying to Show?
That memory consolidation takes a while. Most studies only look at the first few moments after a task was tried.
What this study argues is that short periods allowing the brain to wander will provoke greater memory consolidation. Such “quiet random thinking” may even aid memory more than actively trying to remember what you were asked to remember.
Why Should Unfocused Activity Work So Well?
Because much of what the brain does is not conscious, not cognitively available, and occurring behind the scenes. Researchers call much of such brain activity “housekeeping” which demonstrates how captive they are to their experimental paradigms. Describing the incredible information flow that goes through the brain – which includes everything that happens to us, from immune function to digestion - as “housekeeping” is sort of like saying food, water, and sleep are “incidental” to staying alive.
For a great deal of what comes into the brain in terms of learning is anything but obvious. Have kids study for an economic test. Make them study for six hours at the same study carrel, or two hours each in different places. They learn more when they go study in different places.
Just because many brain activities are unconscious does make them unimportant.
Will This Study Apply to Others Rather than the Elderly?
That remains to be seen. Clearly learning at older ages ages is accomplished in thoroughly different fashions than when young.
Kids have more of a quick, “brute force” ability to learn. Older folks have more long term memory stores – and more experience. They use expert systems to come to conclusions – one of the factors in what we call “wisdom.” Closing the eyes and daydreaming may change the way memory is consolidated in people with expert systems in ways that may not as quickly advantage younger adults.
Yet it appears that the brain needs time in order to learn – especially something we’re relatively good at – remembering the narrative of stories. Overstimulate the brain and it and it may not remember that much.
That’s not good news for multitaskers. Will kids who do their homework while they play video games and text and eat and watch TV remember as well as kids who study and then go out in the street and play?
Don’t count on it.
What Does This Mean for Learning In General?
That like sleep, periods of “indirection” appear necessary for better memory consolidation. Rest not, learn less. However, shifting to certain kinds of activities may with greater or lesser extent interfere with learning. Getting people to do a verbal task after hearing stories means they remember less about the stories they were told.
Is Rest Active?
Absolutely. Even “wastes of time” like daydreaming allow the brain to do the thousands of things it needs to do to keep us alive and reinvent our bodies – including many biological performances of which we have not a clue.
Researchers estimate that 90-95% of brain function concerns “non-conscious” material we don’t or can’t or haven’t figured out how to talk about.
It’s time to use that 90% wisely.
Are There Other Ways of Improving Memory?
Walking twenty to thirty minutes will grow new brain cells in memory areas. Taking a nice, brisk walk after trying to learn something may aid long term memory consolidation, though in a different way than sitting in a dark room.
To remember something, you do better resting afterward. Rest is a never-ending aspect of natural biological regeneration.
Something is always going on, even when we characterize our actions as “doing nothing.” And much of quiet thinking may prove in the end more “useful” – in creating useful knowledge – than directed activities – especially where we’re trying to do more than one thing at a time.
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