We know the importance of muscle recovery and allowing time for our muscles to cool down after a work-out. But, what’s not as well-known is that this same principle applies to our brain, especially when we’re trying to memorize new material. So, although it may seem that the more work we apply to our brain, the better we’ll remember something, the truth is, doing nothing may accomplish more. In fact, 10 to 15 minutes of doing absolutely nothing will help the brain to retain new information better than active effort.

Memory formation is a delicate procedure that requires deliberate cessation of further input. Therefore, while you are pacing your studies, there should be no surfing the web, no checking your emails, no Smartphone activity, nothing. No other distractions. Be lazy.

Amnesia and Dementia Patients Helped

This technique has been known to help those with amnesia and even some types of dementia. Additionally, it can release a new capacity for learning.

The German psychologist, George Elias Muller and his student, Alfons Pilzecker first studied the amazing benefits of undisturbed rest on memory back in 1900. In an experiment on memory consolidation, they required test subjects to memorize a list of meaningless syllables. The group had a short study period to learn the list. Then, half of the group was given a six-minute break while the other half was given a second list to learn.

An hour and a half later, those who had the break were able to remember nearly half of their list while the other group averaged only 28%. As a result of this finding, they realized that the brain needs rest time to be able to fully absorb new information. Any interference at that time can weaken the memory.

More Recent Studies

It wasn’t until the early 2000’s that Sergio Della Sala at the University of Edinburgh and Nelson Cowan at the University of Missouri decided to begin studies to learn if less distractions could benefit those with neurological damage. In one of their studies, the participants received a list of 15 words and were tested 10 minutes later. Some of the subjects were given cognitive test and others were asked to lie down in a dark room without falling asleep.

Those who had taken a rest in the dark room tripled the number of words the could recall. This placed them close to the range of healthy people without any damage to their brain.

A 72% Improvement with Rest

In another study, subjects listened to stories. Those who didn’t have a rest period could recall 7% of the story while those who had rested recalled 79% of the facts. Those with healthy brains were able to remember 10 to 30% more information following a rest period.

Allow Your Mind to Wander

Della Sala and Michaela Dewar at Heriot-Watt University found that short rest periods can also improve the brain’s spatial memories. The subjects were asked to remember the location of landmarks in a virtual environment. They sat in a dimly lit, quiet room free from distractions such as mobile phones. Dewar said,

“We don’t give them any specific instructions with regards to what they should or shouldn’t do while resting. But questionnaires completed at the end of our experiments suggest that most people simply let their minds wander.”

How to Improve Your Memory:

  • Quiz yourself. Encouraging oneself to recall information is more effective than reading passively.
  • Pace your study time. Leave a few weeks before you review material. It’s better to wait even if you’re at the point of forgetting the material. This helps you avoid “overlearning”.
  • Try talking to yourself. Speaking out loud to yourself to describe something will help to cement it into your memory.
  • Mix it up. Make things a little more varied by mixing up the subjects or order of the information. This is called “interleaving”.

Once memories are introduced, they go through a period of consolidation where they are cemented into long-term storage. This also happens in the hippocampus while we sleep. That may explain why it’s easier to learn thing just before sleeping.

It seems that our brains take advantage of any available down time to cement new information. In addition, if we reduce interference while this is happening, we can help the process.

Aidan Horner from the University of York says,

“The effect is quite consistent across studies now in a range of experiments and memory tasks,” says Aidan Horner at the University of York. “It’s fascinating.” He agreed that it could offer new ways to help individuals with impairments to function.

Furthermore, Horner points out that it might not be easy to schedule enough rest periods to increase their total daily recall. However, he believes it could help a patient retain important new information. For example, it could help them to learn the face and name of a new care-giver.

“Perhaps a short period of wakeful rest after that would increase the chances that they would remember that person, and therefore feel more comfortable with them later on.”

One patient who used the method was able to learn the name of their grandchild.

Mindfulness Techniques Improve Well-Being

Thomas Baguley at Nottingham Trent University in the UK has expressed optimism. He points out that many care-givers encourage their Alzheimer’s patients to participate in mindfulness techniques as a means to help lower stress levels.

“Some [of these] interventions may also promote wakeful rest and it is worth exploring whether they work in part because of reducing interference. Though it may be difficult to implement in people with severe dementia”, he said.

Both Baguley and Horner can agree that by scheduling regular periods of rest, without distraction, we may be able to hold onto new material a little more firmly. Furthermore, for students, a 10-30% improvement could mean the difference between one or more grades. Says Horner,

“I can imagine you could embed these 10-15-minute breaks within a revision period, and that might be a useful way of making small improvements to your ability to remember later on.”