Neuroscientists Discover a Very Pleasant Trick to Help You Retain Important Information Much Longer

Want to remember something for a long time? Pair it with a highly positive experience or reward. Then get a good night’s sleep. That’s the conclusion you can draw from a fascinating experiment by a team of researchers at the University of Geneva in Switzerland. You can also use what they learned to help your employees retain the most important information for their jobs.

Research had already shown that we reactivate and consolidate memories while we’re asleep, transforming them from short-term memories to long-term ones. But they wanted to learn how do our brains choose which memories to keep for the long term.

The University of Geneva team started with the knowledge that our brains tend to store information that helps us survive. This is why the moments when we’re in physical danger–a car accident, for example–often stick in our memories very clearly for a long time. The researchers guessed that the reverse might also be true–we do a better job of remembering things that led to a reward or a positive outcome.

To find out, they had 18 subjects play two different difficult games, from inside an fMRI machine, while the researchers monitored their brain activity. In one game, the subjects had to pick a face based on clues, and in the other, they had to find their way out of a large maze.

What participants didn’t know was that both games were rigged. In the face game, only some of the 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 for some participants. In both cases, the games had been carefully designed so that the participants who won believed they won because of their own efforts, and not because they had extra help or got lucky.

Retracing the path to victory.

After both games were completed, by which time it was late in the evening, participants were given a snack and sent off 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 had won at each of the games essentially re-living them, with reactivation of the same brain activity that occurred while they were playing the game. The researchers concluded that when an activity is associated with a reward–in this case winning–your sleeping brain makes sure to store it in long-term memory because it’s likely to be useful later.

It’s easy to see why our brains would have evolved this way. To our ancestors, having a detailed memory of the route they took to the stream where they caught several fish would be more useful than clearly remembering 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 entrepreneurial program Oxford Foundry, suggests pairing information you want to remember with a highly pleasant experience, such as eating a particularly delicious chocolate. Your brain will associate the two and store the information for the long term in the hopes that recalling it might lead to more chocolate.

But this is probably even more useful information when you want someone else to remember something, such as an employee, or even a family member. Turn it into a game that they can win, or pair it with a reward, such as a small gift or some praise.

There’s a small but growing group of Inc.com readers who get a daily text from me with a self-care or motivational micro-challenge or idea. Often, they text me back and we wind up in an ongoing conversation. (Interested in joining? You can learn more here.) Many are entrepreneurs or business leaders and they tell me that rewarding or praising people they work with or live with can be the best way to get the results they want.

It turns out it’s a great way to get people to remember things for a long time as well. You can help their sleeping brains preserve the information you want them to have–whether their waking selves know it or not.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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