We tend to think of learning as hard work, requiring a lot of conscious effort. However, much of the process goes on behind the scenes. If you could improve the unconscious processing and retrieval of memories, you could game the system. And it turns out that you can -- often with very little effort.
If you are learning facts such as foreign phrases or historical dates, giving your study a boost could be as simple as taking a break. Lila Davachi at New York University has found that breaks help to consolidate new memories, improving recall later. However, for a time out to work, different brain cells need to be activated to those you used during the learning period. So, try not to think about what you have just been working on.
Accept your thoughts and feelings as they come, and let them go. Slowly, become aware of your breathing. If you like, you can ask for help, internally, from a higher power. If you don't, think of the problem you need help with -- this makes your conscious mind run down to the library of your unconscious mind with an intention. The unconscious then runs through its files of observations, and throws up all that can help you in the given situation.
Better yet, sleep on it. It is well established that the brain processes memories during sleep, but it will do this more effectively if you leave the optimum time between learning and sleeping. Christoph Nissen at the University of Bern, Switzerland, found that a group of 16 and 17-year-olds performed best on tests of factual memory if they studied the material mid-afternoon, but they acquired skills involving movements faster if they practised in the evening. He suspects that the "critical window" between learning and sleep is shorter for movement-related learning than for other types of memory. Whether adults can benefit as much as teenagers from these windows isn’t clear. "There is evidence that adolescents have a higher capacity to learn -- and they sleep better," says Nissen. It is also worth noting that after about age 60, adults generally learn better in the morning.
Bj√∂rn Rasch at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland, is investigating another way to boost learning during sleep. He has led a series of studies showing that adult language learners remember more when played recordings of foreign vocab while sleeping. "The literature on targeted memory reactivation is growing rapidly," he says. "Most findings are positive." However, it is important that the words are played during non-REM, slow wave sleep, when factual memories are consolidated. Also, the volume of the recordings should not be so loud that it disrupts sleep. Alternatively, you could try using scents to cue learning in your sleeping brain. Rasch has found a boost to memory in people who smelled roses while learning a task and then again during slow wave sleep.
As well as laying down memories, your unconscious mind is responsible for retrieving them on demand. This process seems all too fallible, as those regular tip-of-the-tongue moments attest. However, an intriguing study suggests a way to improve things. Volunteers who had to answer multiple-choice questions on a computer did significantly better if told that the correct answer would be flashed up subliminally just before each question. In fact, they weren’t given the answers at all -- their improved performance was all down to the placebo effect. The researchers think it worked by reducing performance anxiety and priming people for success.
If you have an exam, or even a pub quiz, coming up, that’s worth bearing in mind. Unlocking the knowledge stored in your unconscious mind could be as simple as believing that you can do it.