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Science Has Discovered the World’s Easiest Way to Improve Your Memory: Do Nothing (Really)

Strategic loafing is apparently the secret to cementing new memories.

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BY Jessica Stillman - 10 Apr 2018

Science Has Discovered the World's Easiest Way to Improve Your Memory: Do Nothing (Really)

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Back when you were trying to master scales on the violin or memorize your times tables, someone probably told you, "Practice makes perfect." (And when you were adult, Malcolm Gladwell essentially told you the same thing).

The idea behind this classic advice is simple: the way to shove new information into your brain is to trudge along, doing the activity or re-exposing yourself to the target information again and again. It might not be fun to hear when you've been up late studying, but we've all internalized this harsh truth. The more you try, the more you learn.

There's only one problem with this age-old wisdom. Science suggests it's at least partially wrong. While no study is going to find you can master Beethoven or calculus by kicking back with your feet up all the time (sorry), new research is finding that rest plays a larger role in memory than your nagging mother or exasperated music teacher ever imagined.

Loaf strategically to learn faster.

In a fascinating writeup, the BBC's David Robson details new research out of the University of Edinburgh and the University of Missouri examining the role of doing, well, absolutely nothing on memory formation. Scientists have long observed that taking breaks can help the brain cement new memories, but recently researchers decided to take a more rigorous look at the phenomenon.

To examine the effect of strategic laziness on memory, the scientists asked a group of study subjects with brain injuries resulting in memory damage to try and memorize a list of words. Then, half of the participants were given a handful of standard cognitive tests to keep them busy for ten minutes, while the other half were instructed to relax in a darkened room and do nothing. Finally, all the subjects were tested on their recall of the words.

"The impact of the small intervention was more profound than anyone might have believed. Although the two most severely amnesic patients showed no benefit, the others tripled the number of words they could remember - from 14 percent to 49 percent, placing them almost within the range of healthy people with no neurological damage," reports Robson. Further tests showed similarly impressive results, including in healthy test subjects.

The results are good news for students and professionals burning the midnight oil to master new material. Science shows you'd learn a lot more quickly if you ignored that hectoring voice in your head telling you to constantly keep your nose to the grindstone. Building strategic pauses into your study schedule where you do as little as possible for a few minutes will likely help you memorize more information more quickly than endless unbroken hours at your desk.

Interested in the brain mechanics of how this works? Check out Robson's article for a deeper dive into the details of what science has pieced together so far.

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