Most tasks get easier with repetition. Whether it’s wrangling data in Excel, public speaking or cramming facts for a big meeting, any sort of tricky procedure gets easier if you do it over and over: Practice makes perfect. Right?
Imagine for a second if people could achieve similar levels of mastery — without all that work. Memorize that important presentation in minutes, instead of hours, or improve data prowess without booting up spreadsheets every day? Become a better auto-mechanic, even, or a better history teacher of the factors that led to World War II? If that sounds exciting, you are in luck.
Researchers at Tel Aviv University in Israel have found people may not need to work so hard to learn new skills or concepts, though they are still in the early stages of their research.
“The real numbers, they are actually quite amazing,” said Dr. Nitzan Censor, who runs the lab that produced the findings. “We have exposed a new mechanism, a new form of learning that is much faster but not less efficient than standard classical learning.”
So how does it work, exactly? The authors believe that something they call “brief memory activations” could substitute for procedural training, aka the process of “doing something over and over again until it comes naturally.” Procedural training is how people learn most abilities, from how to ride a bike to how to balance a checkbook.
The concept of brief memory activations is actually quite simple: You teach someone something, and then instead of making them repeat it until they get better, you simply flash images that remind them of what they learned. They don’t need to look at the image for very long, just a second or less, to activate the part of the brain that stores the memories.
“Once this session, or memory, is created,” Censor explained, “in order to improve it gradually from day to day, all you have to do is light up this network.”
Researchers used something called the textual discrimination task to test how well people learned using both methods. In the test, users get a series of visual images they have to analyze quite quickly. The test is pretty tough, Censor explained, so authors can study whether or not people get better with practice. In the above image showing the TDT, for example, respondents have to correctly describe the orientation of the three diagonal stripes — in the orange circle above — in a sea of stripes that are pointed in a different direction.
People are “virtually guessing” the first time they take the test, Censor said, but after taking it four times, they usually do 20 to 30% better, which Censor added is a typical learning curve. What explains the improvement? All that practice. And this is exactly what the control group did: They took an assessment, followed by three practice sessions and then a final assessment.
The experimental group, by contrast, had the same learning curve despite only taking the test twice: once in their initial assessment and then again in the final assessment. During the intervening three days, while the control group was laboring away, the experimental group simply came into the lab, were flashed pictures — showing the images of the TDT task — to remind them of what they learned and left. They did repeat these memory activations five times each day, but that’s still at most a few seconds of work compared to a half hour.
You teach someone something — and then flash images reminding them of what they learned
“A standard session is about 30 minutes of training, our reactivation protocol is just 10 seconds,” he said. “It’s five consecutive trials of the test, but after 10 seconds, they’re out of the door and on the way to their daily routines.”
To be sure, revisiting something four or five times a day sounds like kind of a pain, but researchers showed you only need to view the images for milliseconds in order for the encoded memory to be activated. And in an age when people carry mini-computers with them at pretty much all times, it’s not too hard to see how this technique might be practical.
The main caveat, besides the early stage of the research, is the fact that you do need to be taught something competently for these brain activations to work. Censor also said there’s likely a limitation to how complex the underlying ideas or tasks can be. It would work to learn algebra, maybe, but probably not abstract physics.
For that reason, Censor believes the technique is likely best for learning rote — repeated skills like filling spreadsheets or memorizing dense texts — and motor skills, the tasks we do with our hands. In a professional setting, this might help a mechanic get better at replacing someone’s oil or a lawyer memorize the details of a case, but it won’t necessarily help a mechanic invent a new kind of engine or a lawyer develop a complex legal argument. Some abilities will always require putting in the work.
But this does suggest you might be able to improve your comprehension with a lot less effort by reminding yourself visually what you learned throughout the day; that’s an insight that has been supported by other research as well.
So the next time you learn a helpful work hack or attend an insightful lecture, write down a short phrase or print out an image to jog your memory. Then, tape it to your desk and glance at it a couple times each day. If Censor’s findings hold true, that skill will continue improving without you ever having to practice it again. Just, maybe don’t mention this to your childhood piano teacher.
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