People learn better when brain activity is consistent

October, 2010

A new way of analyzing brain activity has revealed that memories are stronger when the pattern of brain activity is more closely matched on each repetition.

An intriguing new study has found that people are more likely to remember specific information if the pattern of activity in their brain is similar each time they study that information. The findings are said to challenge the long-held belief that people retain information more effectively when they study it several times under different contexts, thus giving their brains multiple cues to remember it. However, although I believe this finding adds to our understanding of how to study effectively, I don’t think it challenges the multiple-context evidence.

The finding was possible because of a new approach to studying brain activity, which was used in three experiments involving students at Beijing Normal University. In the first, 24 participants were shown 120 faces, each one shown four times, at variable intervals between the repetitions. They were tested on their recognition (using a set of 240 faces), and how confident they were in their decision, one hour later. Subsequent voxel-by-voxel analysis of 20 brain regions revealed that the similarity of the patterns of brain activity in nine of those regions for each repetition of a specific face was significantly associated with recognition.

In the second experiment, 22 participants carried out a semantic judgment task on 180 familiar words (deciding whether they were concrete or abstract). Each word was repeated three times, again at variable intervals. The participants were tested on their recall of the words six hours later, and then tested for recognition. Fifteen brain regions showed a higher level of pattern similarity across repetitions for recalled items, but not for forgotten items.

In the third experiment, 22 participants performed a different semantic judgment task (living vs non-living) on 60 words. To prevent further encoding, they were also required to perform a visual orientation judgment task for 8 seconds after each semantic judgment. They were given a recall test 30 minutes after the session. Seven of the brain regions showed a significantly higher level of pattern similarity for recalled items.

It's interesting to observe how differences in the pattern of activity occurred when studying the same information only minutes apart — a difference that is presumed to be triggered by context (anything from the previous item to environmental stimuli or passing thoughts). Why do I suggest that this finding, which emphasizes the importance of same-context, doesn’t challenge the evidence for multiple-context? I think it’s an issue of scope.

The finding shows us two important things: that context changes constantly; that repetition is made stronger the closer context is matched. Nevertheless, this study doesn’t bear on the question of long-term recall. The argument has never been that multiple contexts make a memory trace stronger; it has been that it provides more paths to recall — something that becomes of increasing importance the longer the time between encoding and recall.

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