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A surprisingly potent technique can boost short and long-term recall (bbc.com)
481 points by happy-go-lucky on Feb 13, 2018 | hide | past | favorite | 88 comments

Just as quiet contemplation can induce memory formation, playing Tetris after a traumatic event (like a car accident) seems to help prevent the formation of intrusive memories.


> Preventing intrusive memories after trauma via a brief intervention involving Tetris computer game play in the emergency department: a proof-of-concept randomized controlled trial

Thanks for sharing this.. when I was around 4 years old my parents, a relative, and I were in and out of a hospital.

We were going through a really tough time dealing with a life-altering diagnosis of one of my siblings. A lot of anger and sadness, especially from my parents.

But - the only thing I actually remember from the hospital was playing Galaga in the hospital game room with my relative. Since I was 4 years old, I always wondered (a) why it is such a vivid memory and (b) why I can't remember my family or myself being upset. Quite surreal to see that this specific scenario has been studied.

Hebbian theory: "neurons/cells that fire together, wire together".


If that were so I would expect aversion therapy to work.

I remember learning Rails by reading a book, largely in the waiting rooms at hospitals - the times I was learning it, I can only remember the book, whereas the times I didn't have it, I remember the other emotions. Interesting.

Thanks for the interesting anecdote.

I wonder, do you associate Galaga with any bad feelings because of this? Have you played Galaga since then?

I don't think it's exactly the same process, but I recall Kumail Nanjiani (Screenwriter and star of The Big Sick) saying for the longest time he couldn't stand the sound of collecting coins in Mario games because it reminded him of the time he'd play Mario in the waiting room of a hospital while his then girlfriend (now wife) was in a coma.

I can't even listen to Tears in Heaven let alone play it after I played it at my mother's funeral. I have no idea how Clapton managed to play it so many times...

That’s Pavlovian I’m going to guess.

It’s one hell of a distinctive sound. The Doom rocket launcher and Marathon alien cackle (and rocket launcher) would be couple of the most distinctive computer sounds I could name.

Dissociation is a very good way to avoid trauma - that’s how I got through grade school.

I think it can be an extremely useful tool, but need be applied carefully. It can be therapeutic when dealing with unwanted emotions, but unfortunately sometimes those emotions need to run their course--they're designed as self-defense mechanisms to protect ourselves. Disassociation at the wrong time can enable more problems, sadly.

Oh sure, and especially when you continue to use it after the situation has passed. That’s the more difficult part, of course.

This makes a lot of sense to me. I used to game pretty hard and I know there was almost no better way to blow off stress. Of course, it had its down sides too. Distraction is a remarkably powerful tool. I've also experienced this with relationship drama. Sometimes, after a big argument, the best thing that can happen for the parties involved is to just do something to take their minds off memories of the argument. Anything to get the mind to stop spinning around in circles.

Later in life, I also got into meditation for a while. I wonder if there's an argument here that some subset of gamers are predisposed to be good meditators because the two activities induce similar brain states?

It is known as "zen state" aka peak state. Being in the zone. Happens with all skilled actions that are so well trained, they become almost automatic. Attaining this kind of state while not actually using a mastered skill is the whole point of zen. But that does sound like an oxymoron since meditation is a masterful skill in itself..;-)

I doubt he achieved peak state while playing games during/after a fight with his significant other.

You'd be surprised. If you've been a gamer for years, pretty much everything fades away while you're playing.

The gaming and relationship eras were separate.

I wonder if this is why so many people want to jump into a video game or other immersive escapism immediately after a stressful event. Self medication.

Is this why I can't remember _anything_?

I wonder if my habit of playing Tetris during study breaks while I was in school was a bad idea?

> playing Tetris after a traumatic event (like a car accident) seems to help prevent the formation of intrusive memories.

And, of course, Tetris is enjoyable anytime...

Looks like it keeps your mind from replaying the traumatic events in a traumatic fashion early on if Tetris can keep your mind off it, makes sense

Did they figure out what was special about Tetris? What other things would also work?

Is it possible that people simply continue to think about what they were trying to learn, consciously or not, when given no tasks? Why is the control comparing people who tried to learn information and then took a break to people who tried to learn even more information? Would a more insightful control be to look at how people who took a break compared to people who continued studying the material during the break time?

I would expect those who continued to study for more time would have better recall, but that would be incredible if untrue, ie. you could literally learn more by doing less. Taken to the extreme you seem to learn more by doing less at times. For example you'll learn more sleeping 8 hours each night for a week than staying up for a week straight, but I wonder if these short breaks allow for fatigue recovery and memory consolidation, like sleep, or if they simply provide opportunity to think more about material, which would obviously give an advantage as compared to the people in the studies "controls" that have to learn new information.

Anecdotally, I definitely feel that meditation and breaks helps me consolidate my learnings and raise my overall productivity, but I'm not sure I find the particular scientific studies described here to be highly convincing of that.

My thought is too much focus on a thing can cause blockages in the deeper processing of that thing.

I'm sure many engineers are familiar with the concept of banging their head against the keyboard all day on what's a seemingly simple issue/bug, only to find the solution miraculously appear hours later in their heads out of thin air - maybe over dinner talking to a friend, maybe awaking in the middle of the night, maybe in the shower the next morning. The point is it all happened a good chunk of time away from the glow of the screen with their debugger at hand. It's a combination of having space to process subconsciously which is often spurred on by a context switch.

I imagine a similar thing happens with learning, perhaps even the act of trying to recall something that happened in the past itself causes a deeper processing/association in your brain. All of a sudden you're not relying so much on rote memory but deeper, somewhat disparate contextual cues to aid in the recall.

Being creative (debugging loosely falls in that category) and learning has to be different. When creating or inventing you can fall well and truly inside the box, taking a break helps you think outside the box, learning sounds like the more in the box/zone the more you get it.

TLDR; sometimes you want a new perspective, sometime re-energise, taking a break is an easy way to get both. You

But that's the thing - I believe deep learning is actually a creative process. The new information needs to fit in your existing model of what you already know/believe, and doing so is a creative endeavor. The more you move away from that the more you end up with rote memorization.

That's why people respond better to different teaching styles, different angles of explanation, top-down vs. bottom-up, etc - because they better align with how their creative mind works.

Over studying is a real thing. The most common study techniques are the most ineffective, specifically rereading and cramming.

Paridoxically, the close you are to forgetting something when you review it, the better the learning is. Specifically, the more effort it takes to recall it, the better you learn

To a degree: if you over-strain to recall, you’ll actually train your brain to struggle with that item. Better to limit the time you spend retrying to recall before giving up and looking up the answer.

Is there any empirical evidence for that? Not saying it's wrong, but it's unintuitive.

I think there's probably a high correlation between consistently straining to remember something, and some form of interference going on - the better option would likely be to cut short the effort to recall, and instead identify why recall was difficult, identify any interfering information and devise a way to better remember it.

So in short, I think consistently struggling to recall something is an indication that you need to build a better recall strategy for it.

I'm interested to know why you think it's unintuitive. Certainly it matches my personal experience very well. For example, I have certain Anki cards which I see and immediately think "oh God, not this card again, this one's really difficult" whether or not I actually know the answer to it.

I think its unintuitive because I have flashcards that I now have memorized pat that took me ages to recall easily.

Of course I don't think of them as bad, only "If its hard to remember, it'll be hard to forget". Aka, the ones that I have a hard time learning are the ones I always remember. I'll probably never forget the german word for security guard, die Sicherheitsbedienstete but it took me ages to memorize it.

For some odd reason that is my intuition, which appears to be not that of everyone. But my approach to learning is "failure is a good thing, its how you learn", which might be all the difference amounts to in the end.

That's a good approach. I suspect, for others (and in my experience) when one consistently comes to The Difficult Card, they might have spent more time remembering that it was hard to remember than remembering the answer.

Or, they agonize over the answer for too long, then when they flip it over, they think "Of course!" but move along almost immediately.

And I think you're right also; when you finally get it, it's hard to forget.

That gives me an idea for a personal experiment. Have a session or two where your default attitude to every card is "this is really easy" and try not to think of any card as difficult in any way. Compare your recall percentage for the session compared to previous ones (Anki's statistics are great for this). I'll try this experiment myself.

There is an inverted U relationship between cortisol levels and memory formation. Going from no stress to low stress enhances learning, but as stress levels continue to increase learning begins to degrade. This relationship is well documented in the scientific literature.

> In each case, the researchers simply asked the participants to sit in a dim, quiet room, without their mobile phones or similar distractions. “We don’t give them any specific instructions with regards to what they should or shouldn’t do while resting,” Dewar says. “But questionnaires completed at the end of our experiments suggest that most people simply let their minds wander.”

I agree. It's no brainer that repetition helps retention. If you gave your mind a time to think about what you learned, obviously you would retain it more.

I agree with you entirely. I want to make a few points though. First is that even when I am actively listening to someone speaking, my brain will make associations with the new information (coming from my auditory sensory registers), so I context-switch involuntarily every second. Think of process preemption.

Roughly like this:

   t0: hear the word "dog";
       my auditory registers record it

   t1: my brain processes the word "dog";
       I imagine what "dog" looks like
       hear the word "cat" concurrently, goes into registers

   t2: my brain processes the word "cat"
       I imagine what "cat" looks like
       hear the word "lamb" concurrently, goes into registers
This works all thanks to the fact our auditory sensory registers can withhold information longer than visual's (and the reason why we tend to forget what we see).

> if they simply provide opportunity to think more about material, which would obviously give an advantage as compared to the people in the studies "controls" that have to learn new information.

The second point I want to make is eyewitness testimony and memory biases. Given enough time, a witness can tell untruth. There is a limit to how long we can keep the "truth" in our brain. Long-term memory is not a perfect storage system. Without rote rehearsal, our memories will decay. During our sleep, some believe (at least this is how I was taught in my class) that the brain will do "garbage collection", basically removing things the brain don't think is important.

Onto the third and the last point. Our brain can develop by forming new neurons (or undevelop skills by killing neurons). When a person becomes deaf after an accident, then his/her speech ability will lose over time. Thanks to our neuroplasticity, we can reverse the change by learning again, though we may not recover 100%. This is happening to me: some of my cognitive functions have stopped functioning well after an accident last summer, I have been trying hard to recover, even though there are some improvements, I don't know how much can recover. In general, I am impaired and disabled.

I just started my neuroscience studies, so I recommend reading on dendrite spines. They are "cute" and play vital role involving memory.

* https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RTLrozoinuM

* https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2014-01/aeco-wmm0121...

* https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0018506X1...

I feel (i.e. just my own subjective experience) it's not only the formation of memory that benefits from mental "down time" but also the gradual solution of abstract problems, such as the ones we come across in building complicated information systems.

I'm not sure about this:

>> 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.

Whilst I agree that cluttering up the brain with other similar sorts of information (so stuff in emails or web) is counter-productive, I feel (again just my own experience) that undertaking a completely different sort of activity which exercises the brain in different ways (so for me things like a bike ride, chopping firewood, kicking a footy with the kids) can have great results. Getting back to the original task, I do often find progress has come out of "thin air".

A bit of sad irony with the interjected clickbait-like links:

"... You really need to give your brain the chance for a complete recharge with no distractions.

- The mystery of why you can’t remember being a baby - The man who can’t trust his own brain - A new way to master your emotions

An excuse to do nothing may seem like a perfect mnemonic technique for the lazy student..."

The content of the linked articles is no worse or better than the original one. So I would not call that a clickbait. Actually red the one about children memory with pleasure.

Isn’t this what people did this organically before the advent of smartphones?

There would be gaps of time where you would just ‘think’.

Now it feels like you don’t go a second without distraction. Any gap of seconds is automatically filled by picking up your smartphone.

_“All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”_

- Blaise Pascal (1623 - 1662)

For a long-form examination of this, see https://theamericanscholar.org/solitude-and-leadership/

I've found this technique also helps when trying to learn challenging (for me) things on the guitar. The act of learning to play something new means inducing muscle memory as well as simply memorizing the tune. I work on it in the evening to the point where I don't feel like I'm making progress any more. When I come back to it the next day, I find I've made progress.

I had the same experience when I played the guitar.

Another thing is, a study was done where one group practiced the piano, the other group just sat in front of the piano imagining practicing, and another group did no practice.

The group that just imagined practicing ended up playing almost as well as the group that was actually practicing, and both groups were obviously better than the group that did no practice.

The mind is crazy.

totally. i always think of it as "letting the glue dry"... you put the pieces together by practicing, apply glue by repeating it, and then let it set by sleeping.

Lot of comments about meditation here. The thing is, most forms of meditation are active -- for example, pay attention to your breath. Presumably at least some of the mind wandering that went on in this study was about the material, and most (though not all) forms of meditation would suppress that.

My takeaway from my thus far limited experience practicing mindfulness meditation is that (at least that particular form of meditation) it is not about suppressing thoughts. It's not about actively quieting the mind. Rather, it's about becoming an observer of the thoughts in your mind, rather than the active participant you usually are. You view your thoughts as if they were just another sense from the external world. i.e. you become a passive observer.

So, at least mindfulness meditation, is passive. And that's a rather popular form of meditation these days. It may have the same effects the article discusses, as a result.

(NOTE: The focus on breath during mindfulness training is temporary, and is really just a technique to get you to A) relax and B) begin to focus on the present and sensations you don't normally observe).

I have seen other people who have this conception of meditation, but I am not sure it paints the whole picture. Among the different schools of meditation there are both those that tend to "suppress thoughts" and those that simply observe whatever arises.

In the first category I would put techniques which teach you to focus on a meditation object, most often the breath or a mantra. If someone says "mindfulness meditation" I generally think they are referring to this kind of meditation, and examplars can be found in books like Mindfulness in Plain English or The Mind Illuminated (even though there are also both quite different approaches to meditation, one being focused on "insight" first and the other based on "concentration" first). They don't teach you to suppress thoughts, but they teach you to focus on a particular thing and IGNORE thought, which has the effect, long term, of causing those thoughts not to arise.

But there are also schools that focus on "open awareness" or "just sitting" styles of meditation. This is very common teaching in Zen Buddhism but is also practiced in some schools Tibetan Buddhism, at least in Dzogchen. This, I think, is what you are referring to; where you sit and observe at a mental distance whatever thoughts arise. Eventually, this also causes thoughts to arrive much less frequently.

If you are referring to the research literature, however, I think mindfulness generally refers to the first kind. As with everything, the borders blur together.

This is true; genuine mindfulness does not suppress thoughts. Thank you for clarifying.

In practice, most beginners (a phase that can last for years) find it much easier to use an attentional anchor like the breath. Even advanced practitioners can find great benefit in such a practice.

As long as one understands these nuances, then yes, it is possible for "mindfulness" not to interrupt the natural learning process that can take place when we rest.

I also like the mindfulness approach of Ellen Langer, who recommends active observation of surroundings, which has a side effect of quieting the mind and providing the same benefits (for me at least) of breathing-focused mindfulness meditation. Almost like a shortcut right to your point B.

"Mindfulness, she tells the medical school audience, is the process of actively noticing new things, relinquishing preconceived mindsets, and then acting on the new observations. Much of the time, she says, our behavior is mindless."


This and some other tricks are covered in the "Learning How to Learn" course on coursera (https://www.coursera.org/learn/learning-how-to-learn).

Another effortless way to improve memory and concentration: put your phone away

phones can be pretty addictive, so "effortless" is not the word I'd use.

True, but the action itself really is almost effortless: put the phone in another room, then go to your desk and start working. You’ll be surprised at how easier it becomes to get into “the zone”

You're ignoring the part of it that's difficult. Like saying that not being addicted to a drug or poker machines is effortless because the action of not picking up the needle or not pulling the handle is almost effortless.

I’ve noticed that if I don’t bring my phone to the toilet, I return to work with fresh thoughts and ideas, especially—queue this article—if I’ve just been zoning out instead of thinking (to the extent possible, I’m not so good at meditating).

For anybody perusing the comments here for tips on how to better learn, consider reading "Make it stick". It's a research backed book about the most effective study methods. It starts off with the most research backed and simple techniques to the more complex and less well understood learning concepts.

Here's the kicker: the two most common techiques, rereading and cramming, are the least effective.

The underlying theme about what is effective: anything you can to do to make learning take more effort, while not hindering it, generally improves it. That includes spaced repetition, practicing recall in different settings, and even something as mundane as pre-modifying the text to replace random letters with underscores. Also, testing is very important to both to measurement of learning and the actual learning process itself. Don't forget a proper feedback loop either.

Lastly, something I appreciated reading in the books was how as often as possible, there were studies done in classrooms to try to quantify how small technique and curriculum changes actually impact student learning.

When my son was in grade school, he had to learn the 13 colony names. He could only get about seven of them before stumbling. I told him to try memorizing them before he went to bed and he would do better in the morning.

Needless to say, in the morning, he could rip off all 13 in a row without effort. I've found this method to work for me, too.

This worked for me in middle school when I had to memorize German-language poems while not knowing German. It was rather magical how I could go to sleep unable to regurgitate the words and have no problem the next morning. These days I don't have many opportunities to test my rote memory abilities, thankfully.

This 2012 paper seems to be the original research. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22829465

Seems like there could be an interesting synergy here with the Pomodoro technique (though the 15/5 cycle would need to be modified since the studies appear to use 10 minute breaks).

> first documented in 1900

We should have put in 15 minutes of undisturbed rest after reading this in 1900. We didn't, and promptly forgot how not to forget.

Please skip the clickbait article, the entire thing is: "daydreaming boosts memory"

I'm wondering is meditation is the best possible way to take a break after learning new things...

The downtime from not having a smart phone allowed more time for me to contemplate my life and sow the seeds for better future decisions.

Information and convenience is useful up to a certain point after which it can actually become a hindrance.

There are billions spent on making you believe otherwise.

I wonder what happens if people meditate during the resting period.

Yet, another argument against addictiveness of modern online services. I wonder how it will turn out in the end.

What happens if you just go to sleep? Is stuff you learned right before bedtime easier to remember?

The article mentions that "stuff you learned right before bedtime [is] easier to remember". Perhaps you should have read it just before bedtime.

So, doing nothing is not doing nothing; it's thinking and remembering.

Are the benefits of meditation really that new? For example this article from 2013[0]. Seems like this gets repeated every couple of years like clockwork.

[0] https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/05/study-med...

Is meditation the same a active rest though?

Guided meditation would certainly seem to be more closer to the group that was asked to think on an event, and that reduced their recall below the "do nothing" group.

A non-guided meditation more focused on letting thoughts pass and quieting your inner dialog might affect memory formation differently.

Every couple of years there's a whole new batch of people who've not heard it yet, or who've forgotten it and need to be reminded :)

Don't forget the dangers of meditation: https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/06/the-dark-...

This. A lot of people get so caught up in the benefits of doing nothing they forget it’s dangerous to do too little. One technique that’s worked wonders for me is breaking up doing nothing with 15 minutes of doing something. That way I’m not doing nothing or something all of the time.

Is taking a 15 minutes break to do nothing the same as meditation though?

There’s a joke that meditation is better than just sitting around and doing nothing. But in this case I’m not sure anymore.

Is it well established that the benefits of mediation are more than just the placebo effect?

The title claims this is effortless but at a minimum I have to at least read this article. Misleading title.

I had the same reaction to the title, however the article is extremely convincing: in one case an 11-fold increase in recall.

I will use this for the rest of my life. By the way I used the technique after reading the article. Likely this is why I recall the 11-fold figure. I even remember the numbers: 7% recall to 79% recall for the case I just quoted. This is far from normal for me.

This is probably the most important article I read in the past year on HN.

the 11 fold increase was for people with previous neurological damage.

For healthy people it was 10-30%

Yes I know, but didn't mention it as I wanted OP to read the article. Still a huge difference.

Doing nothing at all was the way I approached high-school homework, and it worked well enough for me.

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