While scientists have already established that resting the mind and daydreaming helps strengthen memories of events and retention of information, new research shows that the right kind of mental rest which strengthens and consolidates memories from recent learning tasks helps boost future learning. This new study was conducted by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin and the results appeared in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The participants were given two learning tasks and were asked to memorize different series of associated photo pairs. The participants rested between the tasks and were allowed to think about anything they chose, but brain scans revealed that the ones that used this time to reflect on what they had learned earlier in the day fared better on tests pertaining to what they learned later. This was especially true where small threads of information between the two tasks overlapped. Therefore, the participants appeared to make connections that helped them absorb information later on even if it was only loosely related to something they learned before.
Previously, many scientists had assumed that prior memories are more likely to interfere with new learning, but the new study shows that the opposite is true in some situations. We've shown for the first time that how the brain processes information during rest can improve future learning, says Alison Preston, associate professor of psychology and neurosciences. We think replaying memories during rest makes those earlier memories stronger, not just impacting the original content, but impacting the memories to come. Nothing happens in isolation. 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."
Preston went on to describe how this new understanding might help teachers design more effective ways of teaching. Imagine a college professor is teaching students about how neurons communicate in the human brain, a process that shares some common features with an electric power grid, she said. The professor might first cue the students to remember things they learned in a high school physics class about how electricity is conducted by wires and get them thinking about the properties of electricity. Not necessarily in lecture form, but by asking questions to get students to recall what they already know. Then, the professor might begin the lecture on neuronal communication. By prompting them beforehand, the professor might help them reactivate relevant knowledge and make the new material more digestible for them."
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