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.”
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
The study was published in the journal Current Biology (Mosha & Robertson, 2015).