25 July 2018

How to hack your unconscious… to boost your memory and learn better

It seems like hard conscious work, but much of the learning process goes on deep in the mind. Here are the top tips to improve how you recall facts



We tend to think of learning as hard work, requiring a lot of conscious effort. However, much of the process goes on behind the scenes. If you could improve the unconscious processing and retrieval of memories, you could game the system. And it turns out that you can – often with very little effort.

If you are learning facts such as foreign phrases or historical dates, giving your study a boost could be as simple as taking a break. Lila Davachi at New York University has found that breaks help to consolidate new memories, improving recall later. However, for a time out to work, different brain cells need to be activated to those you used during the learning period. So, try not to think about what you have just been working on.

memory illustration

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Better yet, sleep on it. It is well established that the brain processes memories during sleep, but it will do this more effectively if you leave the optimum time between learning and sleeping. Christoph Nissen at the University of Bern, Switzerland, found that a group of 16 and 17-year-olds performed best on tests of factual memory if they studied the material mid-afternoon, but they acquired skills involving movements faster if they practised in the evening. He suspects that the “critical window” between learning and sleep is shorter for movement-related learning than for other types of memory. Whether adults can benefit as much as teenagers from these windows isn’t clear. “There is evidence that adolescents have a higher capacity to learn – and they sleep better,” says Nissen. It is also worth noting that after about age 60, adults generally learn better in the morning.

Björn Rasch at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland, is investigating another way to boost learning during sleep. He has led a series of studies showing that adult language learners remember more when played recordings of foreign vocab while sleeping. “The literature on targeted memory reactivation is growing rapidly,” he says. “Most findings are positive.” However, it is important that the words are played during non-REM, slow wave sleep, when factual memories are consolidated. Also, the volume of the recordings should not be so loud that it disrupts sleep. Alternatively, you could try using scents to cue learning in your sleeping brain. Rasch has found a boost to memory in people who smelled roses while learning a task and then again during slow wave sleep.

hack your unconscious illustration

Hack your unconscious

Your unconscious mind is not a black box of fears and desires working to undermine you, but a powerhouse of thought. Discover how you can take advantage

As well as laying down memories, your unconscious mind is responsible for retrieving them on demand. This process seems all too fallible, as those regular tip-of-the-tongue moments attest. However, an intriguing study suggests a way to improve things. Volunteers who had to answer multiple-choice questions on a computer did significantly better if told that the correct answer would be flashed up subliminally just before each question. In fact, they weren’t given the answers at all – their improved performance was all down to the placebo effect. The researchers think it worked by reducing performance anxiety and priming people for success.

If you have an exam, or even a pub quiz, coming up, that’s worth bearing in mind. Unlocking the knowledge stored in your unconscious mind could be as simple as believing that you can do it.

This article appeared in print under the headline “Cultivate your Unconscious”