Improve learning with co-occurring novelty

  • An animal study shows that following learning with a novel experience makes the learning stronger.
  • A human study shows that giving information positive associations improves your memory for future experiences with similar information.

We know that the neurotransmitter dopamine is involved in making strong memories. Now a mouse study helps us get more specific — and suggests how we can help ourselves learn.

The study, involving 120 mice, found that mice tasked with remembering where food had been hidden did better if they had been given a novel experience (exploring an unfamiliar floor surface) 30 minutes after being trained to remember the food location.

This memory improvement also occurred when the novel experience was replaced by the selective activation of dopamine-carrying neurons in the locus coeruleus that go to the hippocampus. The locus coeruleus is located in the brain stem and involved in several functions that affect emotion, anxiety levels, sleep patterns, and memory. The dopamine-carrying neurons in the locus coeruleus appear to be especially sensitive to environmental novelty.

In other words, if we’re given attention-grabbing experiences that trigger these LC neurons carrying dopamine to the hippocampus at around the time of learning, our memories will be stronger.

Now we already know that emotion helps memory, but what this new study tells us is that, as witness to the mice simply being given a new environment to explore, these dopamine-triggering experiences don’t have to be dramatic. It’s suggested that it could be as simple as playing a new video game during a quick break while studying for an exam, or playing tennis right after trying to memorize a big speech.

Remember that we’re designed to respond to novelty, to pay it more attention — and, it seems, that attention is extended to more mundane events that occur closely in time.

Emotionally positive situations boost memory for similar future events

In a similar vein, a human study has found that the benefits of reward extend forward in time.

In the study, volunteers were shown images from two categories (objects and animals), and were financially rewarded for one of these categories. As expected, they remembered images associated with a reward better. In a second session, however, they were shown new images of animals and objects without any reward. Participants still remembered the previously positively-associated category better.

Now, this doesn’t seem in any way surprising, but the interesting thing is that this benefit wasn’t seen immediately, but only after 24 hours — that is, after participants had slept and consolidated the learning.

Previous research has shown similar results when semantically related information has been paired with negative, that is, aversive stimuli.