Want remember something for a long time? Combine it with a very positive experience or reward. Thereafter Get a good night’s rest. That’s the conclusion you can draw from a fascinating experiment by a team of researchers from the University of Geneva in Switzerland. You can also use what you learn to help your employees retain the most important information for their work.
Research had already shown that we reactivate and consolidate memories while we sleep, transforming them from short-term memories to long-term memories. But they wanted to learn how our brains choose which memories to keep for the long term.
The team at the University of Geneva started with the knowledge that our brains tend to store information that helps us survive. This is why the moments when we are in physical danger – a car accident, for example – often remain in our memory for a very long time. The researchers suspected that the reverse could also be true: we are better able to remember things that led to a reward or a positive result.
To find out, they got 18 subjects to play two different difficult games, from an fMRI machine, while the researchers monitored their brain activity. In one game, the subjects had to choose a face based on clues, and in the other they had to find their way out of a large maze.
What the participants didn’t know was that both games had been manipulated. In the face game, only a few participants were given clues that gave them any chance of choosing the correct face. In the maze game, the exit was hidden by an optical illusion, and only revealed to some participants. In both cases, the games were so carefully designed that the contestants who won believed they had won because of their own efforts, not because they had extra help or luck.
Follow the road to victory.
After both games ended, when it was late in the evening, the participants were given a snack and went to sleep in their fMRI machines. They fell into the deep, dreamless non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep where long-term memories are made. Researchers were then able to observe those who won at each of the games, essentially reliving them, reactivating the same brain activity that occurred while playing the game. The researchers concluded that when an activity is associated with a reward — in this case, winning — your sleeping brain causes it to be stored in long-term memory because it will likely be useful later.
It’s easy to see why our brains would have evolved this way. It would be more useful for our ancestors to have a detailed memory of the route they took to the stream where they caught different fish than to clearly remember how to find the stream where they caught nothing.
Can chocolate help you remember?
How can we use this knowledge to help us today? Writing in Big Think, Jonny Thomson of Oxford University’s Oxford Foundry entrepreneurial program, suggests match information you want to remember with a very pleasant experience, such as eating a particularly delicious chocolate milk. Your brain will associate the two and store the information for the long haul in the hopes that remembering them can lead to more chocolate.
But this is probably even more useful information if you want someone else to remember something, like an employee or even a family member. Make it a game they can win, or combine it with a reward, such as a small gift or compliment.
There is a small but growing group of Inc.com readers who receive a daily text message from me with a self-care or motivational micro-challenge or idea. Often they text me back and we end up in an ongoing conversation. (Interested to join? You can learn more here.) Many are entrepreneurs or business leaders and they tell me that rewarding or praising people they work or live with can be the best way to get the results you want.
It turns out to be a great way to make people remember things for a long time too. You can help their sleeping brain retain the information you want them to have — whether their waking selves know it or not.