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Mar 13, 2011


Humans take in large amounts of information every day, yet most of it is forgotten. It has long been known sleep is necessary for memory consolidation and that people who sleep more remember better than those who don’t, but up until now it hasn’t been clear what principle guides the brain in sorting out relevant from irrelevant information for the purpose of memory. How the brain preferentially decides what information to keep and what to reject during sleep was the subject of investigation by a research team led by Jan Born, Ph.D., of the University of Lubeck. Their findings were reported in the March 2011 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience.
Dr. Born used 191 volunteers to memorize things like word pairs and animals depicted on cards. Some were allowed to sleep before being tested on their memories. Half the volunteers were told right after the memory tasks that they would be tested in 10 hours and half were not. The participants allowed to sleep did better on memory testing than the ones who were not. The participants who slept and who were told they would be tested did better on memory tests than anyone else.  
The participants allowed to sleep were scanned with EEG. During slow wave sleep the participants who were told they would be tested showed greater brain activation than those who were not tipped off. The more slow wave activity the sleeping participants had, the better their memory was during the recall test 10 hours later. Dr. Born concluded that during sleep the brain’s prefrontal cortex “tags” memories deemed relevant while awake and the hippocampus consolidates these memories during sleep.
What makes some memories more relevant than others? Dr. Born says one principle of relevance is the usefulness of the information for the future. So what is the take home message? If you want to remember something find a reason that makes it important to your future. A great time to prime your mind with intention to remember something is just before going to bed. The most efficient way to make your life happier is to create positive habit like gratitude or kindness to others.
Instead of going to bed right after watching some garbage show on TV, take some time to remind yourself of things likely to improve your life. This could be your intention to be grateful or kind the next day. It could be an event or person that sparked your gratitude during the day or an altruistic action you performed during the day that benefited another person. Whatever you highlight as important is going to get remembered, so why not make use of your own brain’s memory system to remember positive things and allow the useless stuff (like who killed who on a TV show) to evaporate
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