Someone just gave you a phone number to remember, and you don’t have a pen with you. What do you do?
We all have to remember a thousand different things from passwords to how to navigate our smart phones, but it’s not easy in an age of information overload. We’ve got too many distractions.
Luckily, the latest research into improving mental recall reveals a lifeline for a sharper, stronger memory. Best of all, this technique is easy.
Research shows that when you’re trying to learn something new one of the best things you can do is take a break during or right after the learning process. When you take a break, simply spend 15 minutes sitting relaxed, with your eyes closed.
According to the results of a study at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina, those 15 minutes help solidify what’s called your “declarative” memory. Declarative memory is your memory of facts and events.
Other types of memory that can be strengthened by resting with your eyes closed include memorizing a “motor sequence task.” That sort of task can include learning dance steps or how to play a game like chess.
Helping Your Brain in the Blink of an Eye
In the Furman study, people were trained to memorize and type a particular sequence of numbers—like a password or phone number. In trying to recall the task in which they were trained, folks who sat with their eyes closed for a 15-minute rest could remember what to do more accurately than those who spent their break time distracted with a video game.1
The Furman researchers point out that keeping your eyes closed helps your brain consolidate what you just learned because it cuts back on sensory input to your brain. They note that with your eyes closed, less of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine is released from the brain’s neurons and that frees up more of your brain to focus on its memory functions.
On the other hand, if your eyes are open and you’re engaging with the world around you, neurons will be tied up with deciphering what’s going on in your immediate environment instead of helping you firm up the new skills you acquired a few minutes before.
As David Williams, the director of Rochester University’s Center for Visual Science, points out, “More than 50 percent of the cortex, the surface of the brain, is devoted to processing visual information.”2
So, when your eyes are open, there’s a lot of extraneous neuronal processing going on!
Get More Creativity with Your Eyes Closed
There’s also scientific evidence that you can enhance your creativity when you work on a task with your eyes closed.
Researchers in the Netherlands have found that when it comes to generating creative ideas, suppressing your input of visual information by closing your eyes helps your brain.3
These tests of creativity consisted of constructing sentences that had to be put together following certain rules or finding alternative uses for common objects. Scientists found that closing the eyes during these tasks significantly boosted the ability to think outside the box.
Research confirmed that having your eyes closed boosts the production of the brain’s alpha brain waves, which are linked to creativity. It also increases the brain’s alpha “power,” which is your ability to imaginatively formulate interior mental images of new situations.
An investigation in Japan turned up parallel findings.
In the Japanese study, researchers asked people to come up with different names for things like rice and tea. Keeping the eyes closed multiplied people’s creativity dramatically.4
Finding Ways to Block Distractions
Many of the researchers involved in these studies believe that wearing noise-canceling headphones or floating in an isolation tank may provide extra help in walling off your brain from sensory distractions that impair memory and creativity. They may be right!
While an isolation tank may be out of the question, my friends with young children often rely on headphones or earplugs during their work day to drown out the noise of children playing and squabbling. As for me, I’ll stick to merely closing my eyes to improve my mental concentration. It’s a simple—and free— method that’s always available no matter where you are. And it’s backed by a lot of research!
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