Say you need to remember something important. Information from a meeting where taking notes wasn’t possible. A pitch you’ll make to investors. A presentation you’ll make to employees.
So you take mental notes, or review written notes. You study, highlight, or rehearse. If you’re smart, you also sleep: According to a 2016 study published in Psychological Science, people who studied before bed, then slept, then did a quick review the next morning not only spent less time studying, they also increased their long-term retention by 50 percent.
That’s the power of sleep-dependent memory consolidation. As those researchers write, “Converging evidence, from the molecular to the phenomenological, leaves little doubt that offline memory reprocessing during sleep is an important component of how our memories are formed and ultimately shaped.”
Or in non-researcher-speak, sleeping on it helps your brain file away what you’ve learned and makes that information easier to access.
But you don’t have to go to bed to improve your memory and recall.
A study just published in Nature Reviews Psychology found that “even a few minutes of rest with your eyes closed can improve memory, perhaps to the same degree as a full night of sleep.”
Psychologists call that “offline waking rest.” In its purest form, offline waking rest can be closing your eyes and vegging out for a couple minutes. But offline waking rest can also be daydreaming. Mind wandering. Zoning out. None of which sounds productive, but actually can be: Without those intermittent periods of lack of focus, memory consolidation doesn’t occur nearly as efficiently.
As the researchers write:
From an evolutionary perspective, activities such as daydreaming and zoning out seem to be a colossal waste of time that could instead be spent searching for food or remaining alert to danger from predators.
However, periods of reduced attention to the external world are a universal feature of human (and animal) experience, which suggests that spending a portion of time disengaged from the sensory environment might serve an important function. Periods of offline rest permit the reactivation of recently formed memory traces.
This iterative reactivation of memory could strengthen and stabilize newly formed memories over time, contributing to early stages of memory consolidation during the first few minutes following encoding.
Good news for anyone who has ever daydreamed for a few seconds during a meeting. Or lost focus during a presentation. Or lost track mid-conversation. (Hey, you’re not lazy or inattentive or unproductive; you’re making memories!)
Of course the better approach is to be intentional. Say you couldn’t take notes during a meeting. Get back to your desk and write down a few bullet points. But then, if you can, close your eyes for a minute or two. Don’t replay the conversation, or try to memorize facts and figures.
Instead, zone out. Engage in a couple minutes of offline waking rest.
While that sounds counterintuitive, according to the researchers, “Moments of unoccupied rest should be recognized as a critical contributor to human waking cognitive functions rather than a waste of time.”