As many of us probably know, cramming a huge amount of information the day before an exam can be a fruitless undertaking, with most of the knowledge we have painstakingly gained disappearing from our heads soon after.
That’s why studying with longer intervals can be very helpful in retaining newly acquired information, and a recent study has just proven that the longer those intervals, the more stuff your memory can retain.
According to the research, conducted by scientists at the Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology, taking breaks while learning can help your brain remember recently acquired information by strengthening neural connections.
To gain a deeper insight into the neuronal basis for this phenomenon, the researchers looked at the brains of mice tested with an everyday memory task. As part of the experiment, the animals had to find a piece of chocolate in a maze three times. Each time, the mice had to remember the location of that piece of chocolate, the location of which didn’t change.
“Mice that were trained with the longer intervals between learning phases were not able to remember the position of the chocolate as quickly,” said study co-author Annet Glas. “But on the next day, the longer the pauses, the better was the mice’s memory.”
Observing the brain activity in the mice’s prefrontal cortex, the researchers expected to see consecutive learning phases reactivating the same neural pathways. “If three learning phases follow each other very quickly, we intuitively expected the same neurons to be activated,” said Pieter Goltstein, a neurobiologist behind the study. ”After all, it is the same experiment with the same information. However, after a long break, it would be conceivable that the brain interprets the following learning phase as a new event and processes it with different neurons.”
To their surprise, the exact opposite happened — the same neuron activity patterns were triggered only when the subjects were taking longer breaks between the learning phases. Short consecutive learning phases, on the other hand, led to the activation of multiple neurons in the mice, which didn’t improve the memory of the task. “That’s why we believe that memory benefits from longer breaks,” said Goltstein.
Source study: Current Biology — Spaced training enhances memory and prefrontal ensemble stability in mice