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Reminiscing Is Good For The Brain When It Comes To Learning

First Posted: Oct 23, 2014 10:30 PM EDT
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Staying on task when solving an intricate mental puzzle can be time-consuming, extremely difficult and even exhausting. Yet researchers at Cornell University have found that taking time for the brain to relax or go "off-task" is important for learning and performance, overall.

"The prevailing view is that activating brain regions referred to as the default network impairs performance on attention-demanding tasks because this network is associated with behaviors such as mind-wandering," said study authors, in a news release. "Our study is the first to demonstrate the opposite - that engaging the default network can also improve performance."

Though previous neuroimaging studies have revealed that default network activation can interfere with complex mental task, researchers worked to develop a new approach in which off-task processes such as reminiscing can support rather than conflict the aims of the experimental task.

Their novel task, "famous faces n-back," tests whether accessing long-term memory about famous people, which typically engages default network brain regions, can support short-term memory performance, which typically engages executive control regions.

For the study, researchers gave brain scans to 36 young adults who viewed sets of famous and anonymous faces in sequence. They were also asked to identify whether the current face matched the other when two faces were presented back to back.

Findings revealed that participants were faster and more accurate when matching famous faces than anonymous ones. Furthermore, they found this was more accurate over better short-term memory performance as associated with greater activity in the default network. The results show that activity in the default brain regions can support performance on goal-directed tasks when task demands align with processes supported by the default network, the study authors concluded.

"Outside the laboratory, pursuing goals involves processing information filled with personal meaning - knowledge about past experiences, motivations, future plans and social context," they concluded. "Our study suggests that the default network and executive control networks dynamically interact to facilitate an ongoing dialogue between the pursuit of external goals and internal meaning."

More information regarding the findings can be seen via the Journal of Neuroscience.

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