Memory, stress, fish and sleep

By Murray Bourne, 04 Nov 2005

A lot of learning research points to the conclusion that stress is bad for learning.

However, one study shows that if you experience mild stress 30 minutes after a learning event, you can actually remember the details better. The study, shown on, showed a jazz player learning some music, then taking a shower in freezing cold water. This raised his stress levels and his memory of the music was enhanced.

We have been trying to reduce stress levels in classrooms for years - should we? (Try telling your math-phobic students that their stress is good for them...)

The programme also mentioned the importance of diet for good memory. The Japanese have claimed for years that a diet high in seafood produces clever children. The magic ingredient in fish-based foods is Omega-3 fatty acids, which help the chemical connections in the brain. Such connections are a vital part of memory. More on this from the BBC.

Another component of good memory is a good night's sleep. Our brains continue to 'learn' (or more accurately, 'practise') during sleep. Most teenage students have strange sleeping patterns. This surely contributes to poor memory and poor concentration.

The other interesting aspect of the programme was that of memory training. We all struggle with remembering names, passwords, birthdays, and so on. Memory training involves techniques like assigning a story, an object or a position in space to each fact that we have to learn. Should we teach more of these techniques in schools? Of course, the educational purists will say that meaning and understanding are more important than learning of facts. However, we cannot have meaning if we don't have some fundamental knowledge - and this involves learning of facts.

Footnote: It is quite possible that early humans who lived by the sea developed intelligence more quickly than those living inland, because of their seafood diet, high in Omega-3 and Omega-6 fats.

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