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.
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
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 …