MIND
March 1, 2010

A Break Can Help Memory

Just what students want to hear: Taking a break after learning something new may give the brain time to move the information into long-term memory.

An NYU study suggests that taking a break after learning new information helps move the information into long−term memory, where it can be retrieved at will. It helps the information stick around.

For a short−term memory to become fixed as long−term memory seems to require some type of information transfer from the brain's hippocampus to the neocortex.

Lila Davichi, an assistant professor in NYU's Department of Psychology and Center for Neural Science in whose laboratory the study was performed, explains this as: "your brain wants you to tune out other tasks so you can tune in to what you just learned."

As nearly everyone has seen after learning something new, the information often seems clear at first but later disappears. This is the difference between short−term and long−term memory. For a short−term memory to become fixed as long−term memory seems to require some type of information transfer from the brain's hippocampus to the neocortex.

The researchers wanted to see whether a period of rest while awake could help people retain new information. They performed a study on 16 subjects who were not aware that their memory was going to be tested. The subjects were shown two different series of images: 36 pairs of faces and common objects, and 36 pairs of faces and places, with rest periods of about eight minutes after each series. The activity of specific brain regions were measured during this entire process by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The subjects were then given a memory test, 40−80 minutes after seeing the images, to see how well they remembered which object and face appeared together, as well as which face and which place were shown together.

The fMRI scans showed high activity in specific regions in the hippocampus and neocortex while the subjects were seeing the images (learning). This activity remained high while the subjects rested after seeing the images. The subjects who performed best on the memory test were the ones who had the highest activity in both brain regions while resting.

This doesn't show that information passed from hippocampus to neocortex, only that both regions were active during the break. It is consistent with what would be seen if such information transfer was occurring. Previous studies have indicated that such transfer occurs during sleep.

Unlike many studies, this is one that anybody can test out on themselves to see if it really works. After taking a class or wading through an instruction manual, take a break and see if it helps the information stay with you.

The study was published in the January 28, 2010 issue of the journal Neuron.

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