There is plenty of advice out there designed to help people study smarter. Making the most of your studying so that you don’t waste your time is important, so we are always looking for ways to maximise your learning. Using a variety of learning techniques, including audio and visual, is one common piece of advice, but what if we were to tell you that rewarding yourself after you study and then having a short nap could actually improve your memory? It may sound far-fetched but new findings show that a treat and a sleep could actually improve the effectiveness of your studies.
You may already know about the importance of sleep in cleaning your brain, but research conducted at the University of Geneva has shown that sleep does more than help reset and repair your mind and body. When coupled with a reward for work well done, sleep may allow you to transfer your learning into the areas of the brain associated with long-term memory.
Dr. Kinga Igloi, the lead researcher in the study, explained, “Rewards may act as a kind of tag, sealing information in the brain during learning,” adding, “During sleep, that information is favorably consolidated over information associated with a low reward and is transferred to areas of the brain associated with long-term memory.”
Rewarding yourself creates a positive reinforcement around your studies, while a short sleep then allows the brain to focus and memorise the facts you have taken in, using the reward as a sign that the information associated with it is important.
The study took 31 volunteers and asked them to remember pairs of pictures. Their brains were scanned during the test which said that four of the eight pairs would offer a greater reward. Those pairs with a greater reward associated with them created a better response than the lesser ones, while the volunteers who were allowed to take a 90-minute rest before having to recall the pairs performed even better. In fact, those who had slept were found to perform better in a surprise test three whole months later!
Of course, it may not always be possible to take a nap while you are studying (in class for example), but conversely, a lack of sleep can have a negative impact on your studies. Making sure you are inspired to study helps your motivation, but if you are tired no amount of motivation will help you to study effectively.
So, what’s the science behind all of this?
An MRI scan showed that there was greater activity in the hippocampus (the part of the brain associated with creating memories) among the volunteers who had slept. Even after three months, those volunteers who had taken the 90-minute rest showed increased connectivity between the hippocampus, the medial prefrontal cortex and the striatum, areas of the brain implicated in memory consolidation and reward processing.
Of course, there are plenty of other tips for more effective studying, but these new findings show that it might be worth picking up a book (and a rewarding snack) just before bedtime.
As Dr. Igloi noted, “We already knew that sleep helps strengthens memories, but we now also know that it helps us select and retain those that have a rewarding value,” concluding, “It makes adaptive sense that the consolidation of memory should work to prioritize information that is critical to our success and survival.”