People learn new information more effectively when brain activity is consistent, research shows

September 9, 2010

People are more likely to remember specific information such as faces or words if the pattern of activity in their brain is similar each time they study that information, according to new research from a University of Texas at Austin psychologist and his colleagues.

The findings by Russell Poldrack, published online today in the journal Science, challenge psychologists' long-held belief that people retain information more effectively when they study it several times under different contexts and, thus, give their brains multiple cues to remember it.

"This helps us begin to understand what makes for effective studying," says Poldrack, director of the Imaging Research Center (IRC) at The University of Texas at Austin. "Sometimes we study and remember things, sometimes we don't and this helps explain why."

Until now, scientists have used (fMRI) technology to examine activity in large regions of the when studying . The research represents the first time scientists have analyzed human memory by examining the pattern of activity across many different parts of the image called voxels. The new technique allows them to probe more deeply into the relationship between the mind and the brain.

Poldrack is a professor in the Section of and Department of Psychology. His co-authors include Jeanette Mumford, a statistician at The University of Texas at Austin; Gui Xue of the University of Southern California and Beijing Normal University; Qi Dong of Beijing Normal Uniersity; Zhong-Lin Lu of the University of Southern California (USC); and Chuansheng Chen of the University of California, Irvine.

"The question is how practice makes perfect. If you precisely reactivate the same pattern each time, then you are going to remember better," says Xue, a research assistant professor of psychology at USC.

The researchers conducted three studies at Beijing Normal University in which subjects were shown different sets of photographs or words multiple times in different orders. The scientists recorded subjects' while they studied the material. They were asked to recall or recognize those items between 30 minutes and six hours later, in order to test the decades-old "encoding variability theory."

That theory suggests people will remember something more effectively — the name of the third President of the United States, for example — if they study it at different times in different contexts — a dorm room, the library, a coffee shop — than if they review it several times in one sitting. The different sensory experiences will give the brain various reminders of that information and multiple routes to access Thomas Jefferson's identity.

Based on that theory, Poldrack and his colleagues predicted subjects would retain memories of the photos or words more effectively if their brains were activated in different ways while studying that information multiple times.

Instead, the scientists found the subjects' memories were better when their pattern of brain activity was more similar across the different study episodes.

Xue cautioned that the study does not disprove the effect of variable contexts during learning in enhancing memory.

It's unclear what prompts the brain to exhibit these different patterns of activity when studying the same information minutes apart. That activity could be triggered by anything from the previous image the person saw, to sounds or smells around him or even simple daydreaming, Poldrack says.

"These results are very important in providing a challenge to this well established theory," Poldrack says. "There's something that's clearly still right about the theory, but this challenges psychologists to reconsider what we know about it."

Explore further: Researchers develop new method for studying 'mental time travel'

More information: Xue, G. et al. Science doi:10.1126/science.1193125 (2010).

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5 / 5 (2) Sep 09, 2010
I'd give this a 10 if I could. This is similar to what I've thought about my brain since high school. The way I've thought about it was, if I tie a new idea to fit into a "system" or think about how it fits with multiple different disciplines, I can remember it better. Example: differing light spectra manifests in color, FM radio, Doppler effects, cosmic red shift, etc, etc. IOW, understanding concepts is much more effective than memorizing stand-alone bits of knowledge.

What I didn't consider was how my mental state would affect this process. This makes perfect sense. Very cool.

Now; how do we apply this?
not rated yet Sep 09, 2010
personally i've never heard the idea that we should learn things in different contexts. I've always heard that the more times you see a certain material in a similar way the better you retain it each time (i think it's called long term potentiation, and part of the process of moving information from short term to long term memory). I've also heard that when recalling information it is best to be in the same mental state as you were when you learned it (best applicable to a testing situation). I might be mistaken, but none of this seems new
not rated yet Sep 10, 2010
I am confused. Is this study contradicting this article?:


not rated yet Sep 10, 2010
I am confused. Is this study contradicting this article?:


these articles correlate with each other quite well. The title of the PhysOrg article is a bit misleading. The title at the NY Times is better. But isn't all of this old info on how to study? It's just a new perspective on study habits.

The NY Times article sums it up with the most clarity: "The more mental sweat it takes to dig it out, the more securely it will be subsequently anchored..." To me, this means understanding of learned data to apply and analyze new situtations as in a test, anchors that data within our memories as a functional tool for further applications.

Of course, if you simply want to memorize something, I rec'd Harry Lorayne memory tricks.
not rated yet Sep 10, 2010
I am confused. Is this study contradicting this article?:


You're not confused, the guy who wrote the title of this abstract was confused.

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