Rest briefly after learning

October, 2012

A small study with older adults provides support for the idea that learning is helped if you follow it with a few minutes ‘wakeful rest’.

Back in 2010, I briefly reported on a study suggesting that a few minutes of ‘quiet time’ could help you consolidate new information. A new study provides more support for this idea.

In the first experiment, 14 older adults (aged 61-81) were told a short story, with instructions to remember as many details as possible. Immediately afterward, they were asked to describe what happened in the story. Ten minutes then elapsed, during which they either rested quietly (with eyes closed in a darkened room), or played a spot-the-difference game on the computer (comparing pairs of pictures). This task was chosen because it was non-verbal and sufficiently different from the story task to not directly compete for cognitive resources.

This first learning phase was followed by five minutes of playing the spot-the-difference game (for all participants) and then a second learning phase, in which the process was repeated with a second story, and participants experienced the other activity during the delay period (e.g., rest if they had previously played the game).

Some 30 minutes after the first story presentation (15 minutes after the second), participants were unexpectedly asked to once again recall as many details as they could from the stories. A further recall test was also given one week later.

Recall on the first delayed test (at the end of both learning phases) was significantly better for stories that had been followed by wakeful resting rather than a game. While recall declined at the same rate for both story conditions, the benefits of wakeful resting were maintained at the test one week later.

In a second experiment, the researchers looked at whether these benefits would still occur if there was no repetition (i.e., no delayed recall test at the time, only at a week). Nineteen older adults (61-87) participated.

As expected, in the absence of the short-delay retrieval test, recall at a week was slightly diminished. Nevertheless, recall for stories that had been followed by rest was still significantly better than recall for stories followed by the game.

It’s worth noting that, in a post-session interview, only 3 participants (of the 33 total) reported thinking about the story during the period of wakeful rest. One participant fell asleep. Twelve participants reported thinking about the stories at least once during the week, but there was no difference between these participants’ scores and those who didn’t think about them.

These findings support the idea that a quiet period of reflection after new learning helps the memories be consolidated. While the absence of interfering information may underlie this, the researchers did select the game specifically to interfere as little as possible with the story task. Moreover, the use of the same task as a ‘filler’ between the two learning phases was also designed to equalize any interference it might engender.

The weight of the evidence, therefore, is that ten minutes of wakeful resting aided memory by providing the mental space in which to consolidate the memory. Moreover, the fact that so few participants actively thought about the stories during that rest indicates that such consolidation is automatic and doesn’t require deliberate rehearsal.

The study did, of course, only involve older adults. I hope we will see a larger study with a wider participant pool.

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