Wednesday, 7 September 2011

When money helps you remember

No, this is not a post on corruption. It is one on learning. Learning new things can be so much fun – if the contents we are learning are interesting. However, often we have to learn things we don’t find interesting at all. And all of us certainly know the phenomenon: Our brain simply does not want to take the information in. We keep on forgetting the contents, although we repeat them again and again. What can we do?

A recent study by Kou Murayama and Chrisof Kuhbandner from the University of Munich reports that money enhances memory consolidation, i.e. we can improve our memory for boring contents by rewarding ourselves with money. In their study, Murayama and Kuhbandner had participants learn answers to boring and interesting questions. One group was told they would receive some money for each correct answer, the other wasn’t. They had to recall the learned contents ten minutes after the learning phase and then again one week later. For boring contents, the researchers found only a small difference in the recall performance shortly after the test, but a statistically significant one a week later. There was no significant difference with respect to the interesting materials. This means that we can enhance our memory for boring contents by rewarding ourselves, but it only works when there is some time between learning and recall.

The original study was published in the journal Cognition.

The authors see the reason for this in the fact that our reward and memory systems in the brain are connected, so a reward improves our memory. If the content is interesting, it is rewarding by itself, so an external reward like the money they used in the study has no effect. Other studies have also found external rewards to be detrimental to learning interesting contents because they crowd out the intrinsic value of interesting tasks. We reported on this in a previous post. However, learning boring contents is not rewarding by itself, so an external reward can enhance memory performance by establishing a functional loop between reward and memory system in the brain.

This means that if you have to learn boring contents, you can help memory consolidation by rewarding yourself. The reward does not necessarily have to be money, it can also be an activity or food you like. It is just important that you clearly state: If I recall x correctly, I will receive y. Once you’re done, enjoy your reward!

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