Memory is one of those tricky things that feels unstable and intangible: an invisible cloud in our head that spills out information after some prying. While thinking about our ability to think is a bit confusing, neuroscientists help by offering some concrete answers to soothe us.
For instance, they’ve found that mentally rehearsing information we want to remember isn’t just an act; it actually helps us retain memories by strengthening neural connections. But when working on a project that seems overwhelming, many of us intermittently seek distraction to rest our brains for a bit. Fortunately scientists at University College London have found that these distractions can actually improve our memory, not hinder it.
To explore how off-topic distractions affect the brain, UCL scientists gave two groups of participants a memory task called a delayed match-to-sample. They were presented with nature scenes, followed by a delay and a distracting image, and then shown another scene. The task was to determine if that scene matched any of the original ones.
The control group was comprised of healthy adults while participants in the experimental group had pre-existing lesions in their hippocampus, the area of the brain that plays a significant role in memory retention and recall. Researchers found that with the distractor, the control group showed no change in accuracy while the other group significantly improved their memory recall to that of a healthy person. By increasing the task difficulty with more pictures and a longer delay, they found that the distractor actually did help the control group when their memory task was much harder.
Backing up their findings with theta rhythm analysis from MEG data, the researchers found overall that breaking up a participant’s mental rehearsal with a distractor during a severe memory load actually enhanced their memory. So when it comes to memorizing paintings for an art history course or committing all your passwords to memory, don’t feel guilty if you seek distractions – they might actually improve your performance.