Theta brainwaves improve remembering

September, 2011

New research suggests that successful retrieval depends not only on retrieval cues, but also on your preceding brain state.

What governs whether or not you’ll retrieve a memory? I’ve talked about the importance of retrieval cues, of the match between the cue and the memory code you’re trying to retrieve, of the strength of the connections leading to the code. But these all have to do with the memory code.

Theta brainwaves, in the hippocampus especially, have been shown to be particularly important in memory function. It has been suggested that theta waves before an item is presented for processing lead to better encoding. Now a new study reveals that, when volunteers had to memorize words with a related context, they were better at later remembering the context of the word if high theta waves were evident in their brains immediately before being prompted to remember the item.

In the study, 17 students made pleasantness or animacy judgments about a series of words. Shortly afterwards, they were presented with both new and studied words, and asked to indicate whether the word was old or new, and if old, whether the word had been encountered in the context of “pleasant” or “alive”. Each trial began with a 1000 ms presentation of a simple mark for the student to focus on. Theta activity during this fixation period correlated with successful retrieval of the episodic memory relating to that item, and larger theta waves were associated with better source memory accuracy (memory for the context).

Theta activity has not been found to be particularly associated with greater attention (the reverse, if anything). It seems more likely that theta activity reflects a state of mind that is oriented toward evaluating retrieval cues (“retrieval mode”), or that it reflects reinstatement of the contextual state employed during study.

The researchers are currently investigating whether you can deliberately put your brain into a better state for memory recall.


[2333] Addante RJ, Watrous AJ, Yonelinas AP, Ekstrom AD, Ranganath C. Prestimulus theta activity predicts correct source memory retrieval. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [Internet]. 2011 ;108(26):10702 - 10707. Available from:

Related News

In a series of experiments involving college students, drawing pictures was found to be the best strategy for remembering lists of words.

We know that the

Four studies involving a total of more than 300 younger adults (20-24) have looked at information processing on different forms of media.

A small study involving 50 younger adults (18-35; average age 24) has found that those with a higher BMI performed significantly worse on a computerised memory test called the “Treasure Hunt Task”.

Can you help protect yourself from the memory of traumatic events? A new study suggests that, by concentrating on concrete details as you live through the event, you can reduce the number of intrusive memories later experienced.

A study involving 66 healthy young adults (average age 24) has revealed that different individuals have distinct brain connectivity patterns that are associated with different ways of experiencing and remembering the past.

The question of the brain's capacity usually brings up remarks that the human brain contains about 100 billion neurons. If each one has, say, 1,000 or more connections to other neurons, this produces some 100 trillion connections in which our memory can be held.

We talk about memory for ‘events’, but how does the brain decide what an event is? How does it decide what is part of an event and what isn’t?

We know sleep helps consolidate memories. Now a new study sheds light on how your sleeping brain decides what’s worth keeping.

A new study has found that errors in perceptual decisions occurred only when there was confused sensory input, not because of any ‘noise’ or randomness in the cognitive processing.


Subscribe to Latest newsSubscribe to Latest newsSubscribe to Latest health news