The Totally Unexpected Key To Learning

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One key to learning is the exact opposite of what you’d expect.

Forgetting is a normal and necessary part of learning, a new study finds.

The instability of memory is the key to how we transfer skills and experiences to new situations, researchers have found.

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.”

For the research, people were given the two tests 12 hours apart.

The results showed that learning between the two different tasks was only transferred when memory was unstable.

Professor Robertson said:

“Stabilised memories consistently prevented transfer to the subsequent memory task.

This suggests that the transfer of learning 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.”

The study was published in the journal Current Biology (Mosha & Robertson, 2015).

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Published: 23 December 2015

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