How Short Information Breaks Help Your Brain
New research on ‘cognitive replay’ underscores the problem of information overload
People in the radio business call them “buttons.” They’re those short music clips you hear in between news segments on NPR and other stations.
Bob Boilen, former director of NPR’s All Things Considered, once talked about these music interludes in an interview with the American Journalism Review. He called them “a breath in the show … a place to either think about something you just heard or get you to the next place.”
Boilen was on the money, maybe more so than he realized.
Since the publication of a landmark 1989 study in the Journal of Neuroscience, experts have recognized that the sleeping brain likes to run through its recent experiences and that this “replay” supports learning and memory. More recently, they figured out that replay also takes place while we’re awake.
When you experience something new and potentially useful — for example, you hear an interesting story on the radio — your brain will immediately replay this experience, at 20x speed.
This replay process is mostly unconscious and automatic. It takes place in the hippocampus, which is the part of your brain that sorts and stores information — turning new experiences into durable memories. One of the functions of replay is to strengthen your brain’s grip on new information, sort of like how repeating someone’s name just after you’ve heard it can help you remember it.
“Inundating the brain with a constant flow of information prevents this opportunity for replay, and thus will have detrimental effects on learning, memory, and decision-making.”
But that’s not all replay does. “Replay also reactivates related experiences,” says Shantanu Jadhav, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at Brandeis University in Massachusetts.
For a 2019 study in the journal Neuron, Jadhav and his colleagues found that replay involves an “internal cognitive search” of relevant memories. In other words, replay…