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Forgetting Is Key to Learning



A new research by researchers from the University of Glasgow’s Institute of Neuroscience and Psychology has found that such forgetting is a key part of learning. The study was published recently in Current Biology and it states that our inability to hold onto new memories is essential to the brain’s learning process.

The researchers were of the opinion that ‘memory instability’ “ which prevents us from holding onto new memories “ was vital to the brain’s ability to transfer experiences and skills to new situations. Also, those memories that were stable prevented knowledge transfer. This finding translates to this fact – forgetting your experience is essential to transfer skills from one job to another.

As a part of the study, participants were made to learn one memory task at 9 am which was quickly followed by another. A retest was carried out 12 hours later on the initial memory task. The word-list was a repeating sequence of 12 simple words; while the skilled action was a new sequence of movements like one do when punching in PIN to get cash from an ATM. The researchers found that learning transferred from actions to words, and vice versa, like learning a list of words helped participants learn a new skilled action. The information exchanged was not just a simple transferring of knowledge of each situation “ it was on a higher abstract level.


Professor Edwin Robertson, from the Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging, remarked that an unstable memory prevents learning from being solely linked to one task; instead, it lets learning to be applied flexibly. He further added that their work shows that an unstable memory is vital to the mechanism for learning transfer.

In this study, link between an unstable memory and transfer of learning to a different type of memory task was tested. The researchers employed techniques to measure how learning in one task transferred to and thus improved learning in a subsequent task. The transfer of knowledge from a motor skill to a word list task and, vice versa, was a high-level relationship between elements.

As the study and the participants' training progressed across three practice blocks, significant improvement in motor skills was noted by the researchers in the participants in cases where the initial word list and subsequent motor sequence shared a similar structure. Other methods were also used by the researchers to stabilise or consolidate participant's memories. In such instances or cases it was found that no memory transfer happened between different tasks.

Professor Robertson remarked that their study has identified an important function of memory instability. He said that stabilized memories act as a deterrent and prevented transfer to the subsequent memory task. That means that the transfer of learning across diverse tasks is due to a ‘high-level representation’ that can only be formed when a memory is unstable.

The study seem to suggest that an unstable memory provides a window of opportunity for communication between memories, which eventually leads to the construction of a high-level memory representation, which allows the transfer of knowledge between memory tasks.

The findings of this study are significant as they explain a lot of other things. It not only shows that there is a link between memory instability and the creation of high level abstract memory representations, it also throws light on the similarity in key areas of the brain, like the brain areas critical to memory instability and for the creation of memory knowledge framework in particular.

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