Want to boost your memory? Then give yourself a break immediately after a lesson or learning experience. That downtime will apparently allow your brain a chance to absorb and consolidate the new information, according to the latest research findings.
"Going for a walk by yourself, or sitting down for a cup of coffee, may actually help you remember those experiences later on," said Lila Davachi of New York University's department of psychology and Center for Neural Science.
Scientists have long known that sleep is essential for memory consolidation - the period when a memory is stabilized after it is initially created. But Dr. Davachi wondered if the process starts during rest periods while a person is still awake.
So she and her fellow researchers used an MRI scanner to observe the brain activity of a group of volunteers who were shown a series of images. After looking at the pictures, the subjects were allowed to chill out.
During the rest period, the MRI revealed elevated interactions between the brain's cortex and hippocampus, a region involved in memory. What's more, this activity appeared to be associated with improved recall of the images during later memory tests.
Dr. Davachi acknowledged that the findings are somewhat counterintuitive. "People tend to think that if we want to remember something, you should do something active, like rehearse the material. And you can do that - we know it helps."
But the study, published in the journal Neuron, suggests the brain needs downtime, too. "Your brain wants you to tune out other tasks so you can tune in to what you just learned."
She is planning to do more research to investigate the most effective types of rest breaks for enhancing memory. "My suspicion is just letting your mind wander is going to be okay."