Forgetting is key to learning

December 18, 2015
Forgetting is key to learning

Do you often feel overwhelmed with the amount of information coming at you? Forgotten your shopping list as soon as you've heard the sports results? Don't worry, it's all completely normal – and necessary – according to new research which shows that such forgetting is a key part of learning.

The study, by researchers from the University of Glasgow's Institute of Neuroscience and Psychology, is published today in Current Biology and has found that our inability to hold onto is essential to the brain's learning process.

Researchers discovered that ' instability' – which prevents us from holding onto new memories – was key to the brain's ability to transfer experiences and skills to new situations. In contrast memories that were stable, or complete, prevented knowledge transfer. In short, forgetting your experience is essential to being able to transfer skills from one job to another.

Participants in the study learned one memory task at 9am followed quickly by another. They were then retested 12 hours later at 9pm on the initial memory task. The word-list was a repeating sequence of 12 simple words; while the skilled action was a new sequence of movements similar to that used when tapping out our PIN to get cash from an ATM.

The study found that learning transferred from actions to words, and vice versa. For example, learning a list of words helped participants learn a new skilled action. The information transferred between these diverse situations was on a 'higher abstract level', rather than simply transferring specific knowledge of each situation. Critically learning transferred only when a memory was unstable.

Professor Edwin Robertson, from the Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging, said: "Our work shows that an unstable memory is a key component of the mechanism for learning transfer. An unstable memory prevents learning from being rigidly linked to one task; instead, it allows learning to be applied flexibly.

"In this study we tested the link between a memory being unstable and the transfer of learning to a different type of memory task. We measured how learning in one task transferred to and thus improved learning in a subsequent task. There was transfer from a motor skill to a word list task and, vice versa, from a word list to a motor skill task. What was transferred was a high-level relationship between elements, rather than knowledge of the individual elements themselves."

As the participants' training progressed across three practice blocks, the researchers noted a significant improvement in motor skills when the earlier word list and subsequent motor sequence shared a similar structure.

The researchers also used different methods to stabilise, or consolidate, participants' memories. When this was done it was found that there was no memory transfer between different tasks.

Professor Robertson said: "Stabilised memories consistently prevented transfer to the subsequent . This suggests that the transfer of across diverse tasks is due to a 'high-level representation' that can only be formed when a memory is unstable. Our work has identified an important function of memory instability."

"An unstable memory provides a window of opportunity for communication between memories, leading to the construction of a high-level or abstract memory representation, which allows the transfer of knowledge between memory tasks.

"An unstable memory is in a privileged state: only when unstable can a memory communicate with and transfer knowledge to affect the acquisition of a subsequent memory."

A link between memory instability and the creation of high level abstract memory representations may also explain the similarity in key areas of the brain, specifically the brain areas critical to memory instability and those for the creation of memory knowledge framework.

Explore further: Study demonstrates how memory can be preserved -- and forgetting prevented

More information: Neechi Mosha et al. Unstable Memories Create a High-Level Representation that Enables Learning Transfer, Current Biology (2015). DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2015.11.035

Related Stories

Study demonstrates how memory can be preserved -- and forgetting prevented

July 8, 2011
As any student who's had to study for multiple exams can tell you, trying to learn two different sets of facts one after another is challenging. As you study for the physics exam, almost inevitably some of the information ...

Not like riding a bike: New motor memories need stabilizing

June 18, 2015
Well-practiced motor skills like riding a bike are extremely stable memories that can be effortlessly recalled after years or decades. In contrast, a new study publishing in PLOS Computational Biology shows that changes to ...

Motor memory: The long and short of it

September 13, 2011
For the first time, scientists at USC have unlocked a mechanism behind the way short- and long-term motor memory work together and compete against one another.

Disruption of sleep in children could hamper memory processes

April 15, 2015
Sleep disordered breathing can hamper memory processes in children, according to a new study.

Watching a memory form: Sea slug study reveals novel memory mechanism

November 5, 2015
Neuroscientists at Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science have discovered that some neurons are joiners—seemingly eager to link-up with networks in which learning is taking place.

For people with memory problems, preventing mistakes is a better learning strategy

December 17, 2015
Do people learn from their mistakes? This question is often a subject of discussion at rehabilitation centres. For people with memory problems preventing mistakes is a better learning strategy. Neuropsychologist Dirk Bertens ...

Recommended for you

Now you like it, now you don't: Brain stimulation can change how much we enjoy and value music

November 20, 2017
Enjoyment of music is considered a subjective experience; what one person finds gratifying, another may find irritating. Music theorists have long emphasized that although musical taste is relative, our enjoyment of music, ...

Deletion of a stem cell factor promotes TBI recovery in mice

November 20, 2017
UT Southwestern molecular biologists today report the unexpected finding that selectively deleting a stem cell transcription factor in adult mice promotes recovery after traumatic brain injury (TBI).

Brain cell advance brings hope for Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease

November 20, 2017
Scientists have developed a new system to study Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in the laboratory, paving the way for research to find treatments for the fatal brain disorder.

MRI uncovers brain abnormalities in people with depression and anxiety

November 20, 2017
Researchers using MRI have discovered a common pattern of structural abnormalities in the brains of people with depression and social anxiety, according to a study presented being next week at the annual meeting of the Radiological ...

Neuroscience research provides evidence the brain is strobing, not constant

November 17, 2017
It's not just our eyes that play tricks on us, but our ears. That's the finding of a landmark Australian-Italian collaboration that provides new evidence that oscillations, or 'strobes', are a general feature of human perception.

Brain activity buffers against worsening anxiety

November 17, 2017
Boosting activity in brain areas related to thinking and problem-solving may also buffer against worsening anxiety, suggests a new study by Duke University researchers.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.