Break time may improve memory

NYU (US)—Taking a rest break—while awake—can help strengthen memories, a new study suggests.

The findings, which appear in the latest issue of the journal Neuron, expand our understanding of how memories are boosted. Previous studies had shown this process occurs during sleep, but not during times of awake rest.

“Taking a coffee break after class can actually help you retain that information you just learned,” explains Lila Davachi, an assistant professor in NYU’s Department of Psychology and Center for Neural Science, in whose laboratory the study was conducted. “Your brain wants you to tune out other tasks so you can tune in to what you just learned.”

The study, whose lead author was Arielle Tambini, a doctoral candidate in NYU’s Graduate School of Arts and Science, focused on memory consolidation—the period when a memory is stabilized after it is initially created, or encoded.

To determine if memory consolidation occurred during periods of awake rest, the researchers imaged the hippocampus, a brain structure known to play a significant role in memory, and cortical regions during periods of awake rest. Previous studies have demonstrated regions of the brain more active during periods of rest, but their function at these times had been unclear.

The experiment tested subjects’ associative memory by showing them pairs of images containing a human face and an object (e.g., a beach ball) or a human face and a scene (e.g., a beach) followed by periods of awake rest. Subjects were not informed their memory for these images would later be tested, but, rather, were instructed to rest and simply think about anything that they wanted, but to remain awake during the resting periods.

The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to gauge activity in the hippocampus and cortical regions during the task and during the ensuing rest period.

Researchers found that during rest after the study experience (after the visuals were shown), there was a significant correlation between brain activity in the subjects’ hippocampus and cortical regions that were active during the initial encoding of each stimulus pair. However, this boost in brain correlations was only seen following experiences that were later memorable suggesting these parts of the brain act in tandem for a purpose—to consolidate memories during rest.

Also, when examining each subject individually, researchers found that subjects who had greater resting correlations between the hippocampus and cortex, also exhibited better performance on a subsequent associative memory test and those whose brain correlations were weaker, had worse memory—in other words, the greater the activity in hippocampus and cortical regions, the stronger the memory.

“Your brain is working for you when you’re resting, so rest is important for memory and cognitive function,” Davachi observes. “This is something we don’t appreciate much, especially when today’s information technologies keep us working round-the-clock.”

The research was supported by a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health and Dart Neuroscience.

NYU news: www.nyu.edu/public.affairs/

chat34 Comments


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  2. Theva

    It could also be likely that subjects were already cued as to what the study was going to be about – which college student does not know how these studies are usually carries out? After showing them cards and such, and asking them to remain awake but rested, the natural impulse would be to recall what had just been “learnt”. I don’t think I need to go into the 4Rs that were talked about here previously – register, relate, rehearse, recall – which are the building blocks of learning. You could go jogging after the above session, go through the 4Rs as you jog, and you would still show results. The important thing was to consciously go through the 4Rs, which would show up on fMRI as elevated functioning in the hippocampus and cortical regions. This does not point to rest periods, but rather to what you were doing in terms of the 4Rs – regardless of whether you were resting or not.

  3. Betsy Strohmaier

    We’ve been using the pomodoro method in our office for productivity and just talked about the value of breaks yesterday. For memory and to avoid burn out. I think this info helps validate the pomodoro theories!

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    Why is it we can remember things we didn’t know we knew and not remember things we should remember?

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