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An effortless way to improve your memory

When trying to memorise new material, it’s easy to assume that the more work you put in, the better you will perform. Yet taking the occasional down time – to do literally nothing – may be exactly what you need. Just dim the lights, sit back, and enjoy 10-15 minutes of quiet contemplation, and you’ll find that your memory of the facts you have just learnt is far better than if you had attempted to use that moment more productively.

Although it’s already well known that we should pace our studies, new research suggests that we should aim for “minimal interference” during these breaks – deliberately avoiding any activity that could tamper with the delicate task of memory formation. So no running errands, checking your emails, or surfing the web on your smartphone. You really need to give your brain the chance for a complete recharge with no distractions.

An excuse to do nothing may seem like a perfect mnemonic technique for the lazy student, but this discovery may also offer some relief for people with amnesia and some forms of dementia, suggesting new ways to release a latent, previously unrecognised, capacity to learn and remember.

The remarkable memory-boosting benefits of undisturbed rest were first documented in 1900 by the German psychologist Georg Elias Muller and his student Alfons Pilzecker. In one of their many experiments on memory consolidation, Muller and Pilzecker first asked their participants to learn a list of meaningless syllables. Following a short study period, half the group were immediately given a second list to learn – while the rest were given a six-minute break before continuing.

When tested one-and-a-half-hours later, the two groups showed strikingly different patterns of recall. The participants given the break remembered nearly 50% of their list, compared to an average of 28% for the group who had been given no time to recharge their mental batteries. The finding suggested that our memory for new information is especially fragile just after it has first been encoded, making it more susceptible to interference from new information.

Although a handful of other psychologists occasionally returned to the finding, it was only in the early 2000s that the broader implications of it started to become known, with a pioneering study by Sergio Della Sala at the University of Edinburgh and Nelson Cowan at the University of Missouri.

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