When people allow themselves to take some time and reflect on things they have previously learned, they also become better at learning in the future.
Dr. Alison Preston, who led the research, said:

“We’ve shown for the first time that how the brain processes information during rest can improve future learning.

We think replaying memories during rest makes those earlier memories stronger, not just impacting the original content, but impacting the memories to come.”

In the research participants had to memorise pairs of photos (Schlichting & Preston, 2014). In between tasks they were given time to rest, during which their brains were scanned. The results showed that those who spent this time reflecting on what they’d learnt earlier in the day performed better on what they learned later on.

 Dr. Preston continued: “Nothing happens in isolation. When you are learning something new, you bring to mind all of the things you know that are related to that new information. In doing so, you embed the new information into your existing knowledge.”

This technique could be used in education to help students learn, Preston said:

 “A professor might first get them thinking about the properties of electricity. Not necessarily in lecture form, but by asking questions to get students to recall what they already know. Then, the professor might begin the lecture on neuronal communication. By prompting them beforehand, the professor might help them reactivate relevant knowledge and make the new material more digestible for them.”

In fact, it’s a technique we can all use. We now have the evidence that resting and reflecting also helps future learning, there’s all the more reason to put the book down for a moment and ponder…

Another way to get better at learning and remembering what you learned is arguing with yourself. This can be a highly productive way to learn.

For example: Imagining both sides of an argument helps people reach a deeper, more sophisticated understanding of the subject.

Ms Julia Zavala, the study’s first author, said:

“Envisioning opposing views leads to a more comprehensive examination of the issue.

Moreover, it impacts how people understand knowledge — constructing opposing views leads them to regard knowledge less as fact and more as information that can be scrutinized in a framework of alternatives and evidence.”

Furthermore, people who talk with themselves were more likely to:

  • link problems and solutions,
  • identify more criticisms of the opponent
  • and integrate different problems into a framework of understanding

Arguing with yourself also created a more sophisticated understanding of the subject.

What can you do to retain the information you learned?


What do I mean by that?

Overlearning means that you continue to learn a task 20 minutes after you have already mastered it.

The extra 20 minutes are vital to locking in those performance gains.

Continuing to practice even after you have stopped improving protects the learning.

Professor Takeo Watanabe, one of the study’s authors, said:

“These results suggest that just a short period of overlearning drastically changes a post-training plastic and unstable [learning state] to a hyperstabilized state that is resilient against, and even disrupts, new learning.”

Usually, new learning can be disrupted by any subsequent learning, studies show.

For effective learning, the authors recommend these three points:

  1. Overlearning cements training quickly. However, be aware that overlearning one subject can interfere with similar learning that follows.
  2. Don’t try to to learn anything afterwards. If you don’t overlearn something, it can interfere with what you have just learned.
  3. Two tasks can be learned without interference as long as there is a few hours between them.

In the research 183 people were presented with a series of images for learning.

Those that overlearned — they carried on learning after mastery — laid down stronger memories than those who did not overlearn.

Those who did not overlearn were likely to see memory interference from a subsequent task.

However, if there was a gap of a few hours in between bouts of learning, one task did not then degrade the performance on the other.

Professor Watanabe concluded:

“If you want to learn something very important, maybe overlearning is a good way. If you do overlearning, you may be able to increase the chance that what you learn will not be gone.”

And last but not least. Can you learn while you are distracted?

As odd as it might sound; learning with distractions can be just as efficient as total focus, as long as the distractions are still there during recall.

Although distractions have long been thought detrimental to learning, two new experiments have tested what happens when people are also distracted as they try to recall what they’ve learnt.

Dr. Joo-Hyun Song, who led the study, explained:

“The underlying assumption people have is that divided attention is bad — if you divide your attention, your performance should get worse.

But learning has a later, skill-retrieval part.

People haven’t studied what’s the role of divided attention in memory recall later.”

The study, published in the journal Psychological Science, looked at motor learning, the kind which is activated when playing sports, driving or anything which involves coordinating new movements (Song & Bedard, 2014).

People played a computer game in which they had to virtually reach to grab a target.

At the same time symbols streamed by underneath, which sometimes people were asked to count.

The results showed that those who were distracted from the motor task by also having to count symbols performed just as well as those whose attention was undivided, as long as they were distracted at both learning and recall.

People who were only distracted during learning, or only during recall, performed worse.

A second study showed that the distractions don’t need to be the same ones.

Instead of different shapes, the researchers tried varying the brightness of the distractions and even using different sounds.

The researchers were surprised to find that it made no difference: people who were distracted at both learning and recall did better than those only distracted at one or the other.

The study only tested motor learning, so we don’t know if the same is true of other types of learning, like visual or linguistic.

Dr. Song is not yet sure how or why the brain responds positively to divided attention in the first place.

She said:

“For now my working hypothesis is that this creates an internal representation in which divided attention is associated with the motor learning process, so it can work as an internal cue.”

If divided attention really can cue memory, then so much the better in this age of endless distractions.

So, I hope you learned something new and that you’ll be able to retain and learn better now.

As always thanks for reading and until next time.

P.S. If you liked this post then you’ll like my books as well. You can get them on Amazon.