Many people know that taking a break after learning something can help you to remember it - and researchers now want to find out if having a quiet time before might also help.
A new international study is hoping to prove the importance of the pre-learning period and the findings may benefit students facing exams, people with memory loss after a stroke or accident, and dementia patients.
The University of Western Australia's Assistant Professor Ullrich Ecker is one of the lead investigators into how we forget and how we remember. His collaborators are from UWA as well as the UK's University of Warwick and the British Medical Research Council's Brain and Cognition Unit.
An Australian Post-Doctoral Fellow, Assistant Professor Ecker is unusual in that his PhD was in neuroscience while his latest research is in cognitive psychology. "Most people are in one field or the other, but my approach to understand human forgetting combines them," he said.
"We are looking at two accounts of memory and forgetting. One is temporal distinctiveness, meaning that memory will depend on the to-be-remembered event's isolation in time before and after.
"For example, if you have a nap before learning new vocab in a foreign language, and then do yoga afterwards, you're not crowding the new facts with other information that would otherwise interfere with learning. We build computational models that can predict how much people will remember based only on the rest times before and after learning.
"The second account of memory has a neuroscientific tradition. Neuroscientists claim that there is a special neural process occurring after learning called consolidation. There's evidence from animal models and brain imaging studies that consolidation, which is thought to be active especially during certain sleep phases, actively protects the memory against forgetting.
"We want to find out whether such a consolidation mechanism is really necessary to explain forgetting. We are particularly interested if inactivity before learning is also important, as consolidation can only operate after learning.
"Apart from computational models, one of the ways in which we're hoping to test this is with functional magnetic resonance imaging of the brain, and studies on patients whose hippocampus is damaged as a result of stroke or injury. The hippocampus is a part of the brain thought to play a major part in consolidation and memory more generally."
Assistant Professor Ecker's other research looks at memory updating and why people have trouble dismissing misinformation, that is, information they once believed to be true but which then turned out to be false.