By letting their mind wander back to previous experience, the participants were making connections that helped them absorb information later on.
Previously, scientists have found that resting the mind - or daydreaming - contributes to strengthening memories of events and the storage of information. However, the new study suggests that this kind mental rest not only helps consolidate memories, but also improves future learning.
The researchers assigned the participants in the study two learning tasks in which they were required to memorize different series of associated photo pairs.
Between these tasks, the participants were free to rest and think about anything they like.
Medical News Today did not have access to data on the number of participants involved in the study at the time of publication.
However, the authors claim that those who used the free time to reflect on what they had learned during the day performed better in tests on what they had learned earlier.
"We've shown for the first time that how the brain processes information during rest can improve future learning," says co-author Alison Preston, an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience.
"We think replaying memories during rest makes those earlier memories stronger, not just impacting the original content, but impacting the memories to come," she adds.
Preston's team thinks that, by letting their mind wander back to previous experience, the participants were making connections that helped them absorb information later on - even if the new learning was only tangentially related to previous learning. Preston explains:
"Nothing happens in isolation. When you are learning something new, you bring to mind all of the things you know that are related to that new information. In doing so, you embed the new information into your existing knowledge."
The researchers believe that their findings may influence teachers to design more effective teaching plans.
For instance, in a class of high school physics students:
"A professor might first get them thinking about the properties of electricity," suggests Preston. "Not necessarily in lecture form, but by asking questions to get students to recall what they already know."
"Then, the professor might begin the lecture on neuronal communication," she continues. "By prompting them beforehand, the professor might help them reactivate relevant knowledge and make the new material more digestible for them."
Other recent studies looking at memory and learning
In June, MNT reported on a study that found sleep after learning causes structural changes in the brain. During this phase, connections grow between brain cells that improve the cells' ability to pass information to each other.
And in February, a study published in The Journal of Neuroscience suggested that memory works by rewriting stored information in the hippocampus to bring it in line with new experiences.
The description by senior study author Dr. Joel Voss of his team's findings is also relevant to the new University of Texas at Austin research:
"Everyone likes to think of memory as this thing that lets us vividly remember our childhoods or what we did last week. But memory is designed to help us make good decisions in the moment and, therefore, memory has to stay up to date."