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Aiding Memory

A new study finds that, contrary to conventional belief, memorization works best when the brain repeats the same patterns each time.

People are more likely to remember information if the pattern of activity in their brain is roughly the same with each review, according to psychologists at USC, the University of Texas at Austin, and Beijing Normal University.

The study challenges the long-held belief that humans remember more effectively when they review information in varying contexts — for example, by studying in different places or by mixing types of drills during athletic practice, as described in recent stories in The New York Times and Time.

“The question is how practice makes perfect,” says Gui Xue of the USC College, the study’s first author. “If you precisely reactivate the same pattern each time, then you are going to remember better.”

Xue and fellow researchers conducted three studies at Beijing Normal University in which people were shown different sets of photographs or words multiple times in different orders. Functional magnetic resonance imaging was used to observe the subjects’ brain activity while they studied the material. The subjects were then asked to recall or recognize those items between 30 minutes and six hours later.

Based on decades-old theory suggesting that people will remember something more effectively if they study it at different times in different contexts, the researchers predicted that the most successful subjects would show more variability in their brain patterns from one review to the next.

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

These results provide an important challenge to established theory, says Russell Poldrack of UT Austin, senior author on the study. “There’s something that’s clearly still right about the theory, but this challenges psychologists to reconsider what we know about it.”

“This helps us begin to understand what makes for effective studying,” Poldrack adds. “Sometimes we study and remember things, sometimes we don’t, and this helps explain why.”

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