Jan. 27, 2010 -- A coffee break after an important meeting or class may be just the thing your brain needs to digest new information and improve memory.
A new study suggests that resting while awake aids in memory consolidation and improves memory recall, much like getting a good night’s sleep has been shown to do.
"Taking a coffee break after class can actually help you retain that information you just learned," researcher Lila Davachi, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at the Center for Neural Science at New York University, says in a news release. "Your brain wants you to tune out other tasks so you can tune in to what you just learned."
Researchers found that activity between the hippocampus and neocortex, two key brain areas involved in memory and processing, increased during periods of wakeful rest after a learning task. This increase in activity was also associated with improved memory.
"Your brain is working for you when you're resting, so rest is important for memory and cognitive function," Davachi says. "This is something we don't appreciate much, especially when today's information technologies keep us working around the clock."
Resting Revs Up Memory
In the study, published in Neuron, 16 adults were shown pairs of images followed by periods of wakeful rest. The participants were not told that their memory of these images would be tested later, but they were told to relax and think about whatever they wanted during the rest period.
Meanwhile, researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure brain activity before, during, and after the tests.
The results showed that there was an increase in brain activity between the hippocampus and neocortex while the participants were shown the images and during the rest period.
In addition, those participants who had greater increases in activity between these two areas while resting and seeing the images performed better on associative memory tests than those who had weaker responses.
Researchers say many studies in humans as well as rodents have demonstrated that sleep performs an important role in memory consolidation. But these results suggest that sleep may not be the only time the day’s experiences are strengthened in memory. Wakeful rest periods, such as coffee breaks or meditation, may also help improve memory.