Jul 26 2012

Boosting Memory

Most people wish they had a better memory. I have a pretty good memory, but still I find it frustrating that I have spent a great deal of time learning information that I no longer can easily recall. Without frequent reinforcement, the information seems to fade. Because of this there is a cottage industry of memory enhancing products, mostly worthless. Supplements, like gingko biloba or a vitamin cocktail, don’t work. Brain training games are no better than just being mentally active. Fancy devices that train or reorganize your brain waves are pure pseudoscience.

The bottom line is that, for memory function (like most biological functions), you should strive to be generally healthy (varied diet and regular exercise), and be mentally active, but don’t waste you money on fancy products with hyped claims. (This is for the healthy population. There are neurological diseases where certain medications are effective.)

There is, however, a fairly large literature on studying techniques that improve the retention of what is studied. For example, there is the so-called production effect Рwhen studying text, reading the text aloud enhances later retention.  Repetition of material is also important, with increasing delays between repetitions. There is also the keyword mnemonic method where the word that one is trying to learn is pictured with a keyword that sounds similar and is easy to visualize. The key seems to be to associate what you are trying to learn with as many things as possible, and to have repeated exposure to the information.

Another approach to improving memory is to focus on the brain itself – how and when does short term memory get encoded into long term memory? Many studies have shown that getting a good night’s sleep following a period of learning improves later recall. Sleep seems to be vital for memory consolidation into long term storage.

This brings us to the focus of this article – a new study looking at the effect of wakeful rest on later recall:

In two separate experiments, a total of thirty-three normally aging adults between the ages of 61 and 87 were told two short stories and told to remember as many details as possible. Immediately afterward, they were asked to describe what happened in the story. Then they were given a 10-minute delay that consisted either of wakeful resting or playing a spot-the-difference game on the computer.

The group that engaged in wakeful rest scored significantly better than the group given the visual task, even seven days later. The researchers conclude that, perhaps like sleep, wakeful resting allows for improved memory consolidation.

This may be true, but I don’t find this series of studies convincing. The problem is that during the 10 minute period of wakeful rest the subjects were not distracted and could think about the story they had just read. The subjects performing the visual task were distracted and likely were unable to spend their mental energy thinking about the story. So the question is – what is the contribution of these variables? Is it the rest that is important, or the repetition inherent in thinking about the story. Mentally going over the story also allows the subjects to make connections and associations, think about deeper meanings and themes, and therefore potentially provide a variety of mnemonic devices to aid in later recall.

The subjects in the wakeful rest group of these studies were not told what to think about during their 10 minutes of rest. Perhaps a useful follow up study would be to have three wakeful rest groups – one in which the group is told nothing but to wait (as with the current studies), one in which they are told specifically to think about the story they just read, and one in which they are told to think about something else specific. In all cases they will be quietly resting, but probably thinking about the story itself to different degrees. This could at least provide some information about the relative contribution of resting vs thinking about the story to be remembered.

Still, regardless of which component is more important, if after studying  a set of information you sit quietly and undisturbed and think about the information you just studied, this seems to aid in consolidation and later recall (at least out to a week later).

There is no magic bullet for memory. Studying and learning new material is mental work and you have to put in the time and effort to get results. But some studying techniques are more effective than others. The science of learning continues to slowly grind forward. I wish this information would find its way to the public more than the hyped claims of dubious “brain training” gimmicks and products.

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