Neuroscientists hit upon potential way to tune the brain into learning mode

Lead author Dr Darya Frank, a cognitive neuroscientist from The University of Manchester, said: “We already know that if expectation is violated before or during learning, it triggers an adaptive mechanism resulting in better memory for unexpected events.

“This experiment shows how the mechanism is also affected when we are trying to retrieve information.”

The hippocampus encodes  – or creates –  memories but also  retrieves memories. With only a finite amount of resource to allocate to either, the two mechanisms  are in conflict.

So when something unexpected happens, our brain focuses on the outside environment so it can learn something new, something it did not initially expect.

Scientists already know that surprise turns on the brain’s learning mode, add link however, the current study is the first to investigate how the brain uses the mechanism when we are trying to retrieve information.

Dr Frank added: “Though our study did not assess the impact of these findings on exam revision and performance, it is logical to see its implications.

“So when the goal is to retrieve information –  encountering surprising events like revising in a café or other unfamiliar surroundings would engage an encoding mechanism that may enhance memory for a future exam.

“But the reverse is also true: when trying to remember something already learned during the exam itself, a familiar and expected environment could be helpful, and support retrieving information from memory.

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