UT researchers: mental rest can help boost future learning

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Alison Preston, associate professor of psychology, and psychology graduate student Margaret Schlichting found that subjects who learned with mental rest performed better than those with no rest.

Photo Credit: Rachel Zein | Daily Texan Staff

A study conducted by two UT psychology researchers concluded that mental rest and reflection on past learning activities can help boost upcoming learning activities.

According to the findings published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Monday, the processing of prior memories is associated with subsequent learning. Prior knowledge can facilitate new learning as opposed to interfering with it, which was commonly believed by scientists.

Psychology graduate student Margaret Schlichting co-authored the study.

“It has been known for years that processes at play in the brain during periods of mental rest are critically important for memory,” Schlichting said. “But, until our study, it was unknown whether or not these same brain processes during mental rest might actually boost people’s ability to learn in later situations.”

During their research, Schlichting and co-author Alison Preston, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience, asked participants to memorize different series of photo pairs. In between the assigned activities, the participants rested and were free to think about anything they wanted. Brain scans of the participants afterward showed that those who used the time to reflect on the learning done did better on upcoming tests.

When information from two tasks overlapped, the researchers found that the reflection helped participants retain the material and allowed them to make connections that helped them absorb upcoming information.

Preston said the results of the study can be applied to a wide audience.

“The findings are a general application for all people because we didn’t look at a specific age or group of people,” Preston said. “These mechanisms are what occurs in the human brain. A lot happens in your brain when you’re resting. Your brain is replaying recent experiences — the goal being to make memories lasting.”

Schlichting said the results from the research are important because they can be implemented in real-world learning processes, such as learning in a classroom environment.

“Work from our research group and others has shown that having strong prior knowledge about a topic may benefit you when you try to learn new, related information,” Schlichting said. “For a student, this might mean that regularly studying course materials continually strengthens your knowledge base, making it easier for you to learn new facts later in the semester.”

Physics freshman Javier Leija said the information is helpful, especially for a college student going through a week of exams.

“Cramming before a test is not the most efficient way to prepare for it,” Leija said. “After all, if you give your brain enough time, you will end up being more prepared than what you could accomplish by binge reading.”