Students in school are rarely given opportunities to rest and reflect on the knowledge they’ve acquired, but a new study suggests that giving the mind a little targeted downtime could be a highly effective way to boost learning.
The brain mechanisms that are engaged when the mind is resting and reflecting on previously acquired information can boost future learning, according to research from the University of Texas at Austin, recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
To demonstrate this ability, researchers asked 35 adult study participants to memorize pairs of photos in two separate series. In between each series, the participants were given some time to rest and think about anything they wanted. Participants who used the time to reflect on the first series of photos, according to brain scans taken during the break, then outperformed themselves on the subsequent series. This was especially true in cases where minor details of information overlapped between the two tasks.
During reflection, the researchers theorized, the participants were making mental connections that helped them to later absorb information that related in some way (even loosely) to the information that they had previously acquired.
“Nothing happens in isolation,” lead researcher Dr. Alison Preston, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Texas, said in a statement. “When you are learning something new, you bring to mind all of the things you know that are related to that new information. In doing so, you embed the new information into your existing knowledge.”
The findings counter previously held assumptions that older memories are likely to interfere with new learning. In at least some cases, the findings show, prior memories can act as helpful connections when acquiring new knowledge.
“We’ve shown for the first time that how the brain processes information during rest can improve future learning,” Preston said. “We think replaying memories during rest makes those earlier memories stronger, not just impacting the original content, but impacting the memories to come.”
It’s important to note, according to Perston, that participants were not necessarily actively reflecting on the previous learning experience.
“In fact, our participants did not know they would later be learning related information — so, they knew of no reason to try to remember what they had just been shown,” Preston said in an email to the Huffington Post. “We think that it is more likely the case that memory replay during periods of rest is an automatic process — the brain automatically reflects on past experiences to make memories for those experiences stronger.”
Preston’s findings are in line with a number of studies which have found that when the mind is at rest (engaging in mind-wandering or daydreaming), parts of the brain that aid in memory storage and consolidation, as well as information retrieval, are highly active.
“This study is consistent with an emerging body of research suggesting that the capacity to imagine the future draws on the same mental machinery required to remember our past,” Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman, psychology professor at Penn University, who has studied mind-wandering extensively, said in an email to the Huffington Post. “Our deep storehouse of memories is part of the Default Network (or as I like to call it, the Imagination Network), which facilitates not just learning, but also perspective taking, imagination, creativity, future planning, reflection, and morality.”