The best way to not forget a newly learned poem, card trick or algebra equation may be to take a quick nap, scientists surprised by their own findings have reported.
In experiments, researchers in Germany showed that the brain is better during sleep than during wakefulness at resisting attempts to scramble or corrupt a recent memory.
Their study, published in Nature Neuroscience, provides new insights into the hugely complex process by which we store and retrieve deliberately acquired information – learning, in short. Earlier research showed that fresh memories, stored temporarily in a region of the brain called the hippocampus, do not gel immediately.
It was also known that reactivation of those memories soon after learning plays a crucial role in their transfer to more permanent storage in the brain’s ‘hard drive,’ the neocortex. During wakefulness, however, this period of reactivation renders the memories more fragile.
Learning a second poem at this juncture, for example, will likely make it harder to commit the first one to deep memory.
Bjorn Rasch of the University of Lubeck in Germany and three colleagues assumed that the same thing happens when we sleep, and designed an experiment to find out if they were right.