Why doing something exciting boosts learning, memory

by L&D09 Sep 2016
Taking a break from work to play a thrilling video game or kick a soccer ball around might just assist the learning process, according to new research.

The reason is that attention-grabbing activities trigger the release of “memory-enhancing chemicals”.

These chemicals can cement memories in the brain that happen just before or soon after the experience (regardless of whether they were related to the event), according to researchers at UT Southwestern Medical Center's Peter O'Donnell Jr. Brain Institute.

The study may have potential implications for methods of learning in classrooms and workplaces, the researchers added.

They argue that the key to producing long-lasting memories is to “find something interesting enough to activate the release of dopamine from the brain's locus coeruleus (LC) region”.

"Activation of the locus coeruleus increases our memory of events that happen at the time of activation and may also increase the recall of those memories at a later time," said Dr. Robert Greene, the study's co-senior author and a Professor of Psychiatry and Neurosciences with the O'Donnell Brain Institute.

The research demonstrates why people tend to remember major events with particular clarity, in addition to unrelated details that go with those events.

This could include what they were doing in the hours before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks; or where they were when John F. Kennedy was killed.

"The degree to which these memories are enhanced probably has to do with the degree of activation of the LC," said Dr. Greene. "When the New York World Trade Center came down on 9/11, that was high activation."

However, major events aren't the only way to trigger the release of dopamine in this part of the brain. It might be as simple as somebody playing a new video game during a quick break while studying, or an executive playing tennis right after attempting to memorise a big speech.

"In general, anything that will grab your attention in a persistent kind of way can lead to activation," Dr. Greene said.

The study tested 120 mice to establish a link between locus coeruleus neurons and neuronal circuits of the hippocampus (the region of the brain responsible for recording memories) that receive dopamine from the LC.

When the mice were given something out of the ordinary to do after being shown where the pellets were, they were better at finding them again a day later.

Dr. Greene said the next aspect of the study might include investigating how big an impact these findings can have on human learning, and whether it can lead to an understanding of how patients develop failing memories and how to better target effective therapies for them.  

The findings are published in the journal Nature.

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