Forgetting is key to learning

December 18, 2015, University of Glasgow
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

New technique helps uncover changes in ALS neurons

June 22, 2018
Northwestern Medicine scientists have discovered that some neurons affected by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) display hypo-excitability, using a new method to measure electrical activity in cells, according to a study ...

Broken shuttle may interfere with learning in major brain disorders

June 22, 2018
Unable to carry signals based on sights and sounds to the genes that record memories, a broken shuttle protein may hinder learning in patients with intellectual disability, schizophrenia, and autism.

Watching stem cells repair spinal cord in real time

June 22, 2018
Monash University researchers have restored movement and regenerated nerves using stem cells in zebra fish where the spinal cord is severely damaged.

Scientists discover fundamental rule of brain plasticity

June 21, 2018
Our brains are famously flexible, or "plastic," because neurons can do new things by forging new or stronger connections with other neurons. But if some connections strengthen, neuroscientists have reasoned, neurons must ...

Scientists discover how brain signals travel to drive language performance

June 21, 2018
Effective verbal communication depends on one's ability to retrieve and select the appropriate words to convey an intended meaning. For many, this process is instinctive, but for someone who has suffered a stroke or another ...

Researchers find mechanism behind choosing alcohol over healthy rewards

June 21, 2018
A new study links molecular changes in the brain to behaviours that are central in addiction, such as choosing a drug over alternative rewards. The researchers have developed a method in which rats learn to get an alcohol ...

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.